My son Patrick called the other day, concerned that his older brother has a Facebook page. Patrick told me he’d read online about a young man with autism who suffered abuse after connecting with strangers via social media. He worried something like that would happen to Colin, whose autism also leaves him vulnerable to mistreatment.
I assured my younger son we’d all help to monitor Colin’s page. But something else emerged from the telephone conversation that uplifted me: Patrick’s insights as a sibling of an individual with autism and his desire to enhance Colin’s quality of life.
This conversation occurred, coincidentally, at the beginning of October, which is Respect Life Month. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) chose the theme “Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation” for this year’s observance. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., in a letter on this topic for the USCCB, asks us to reflect on the theme and how “this truth affects both our understanding of ourselves and others and the way we live.”
At times in our family’s life we’ve allowed autism to block our view of a masterpiece. One Saturday, when Patrick was about 7, his eyeglasses broke while he was playing indoor soccer. Colin, watching the game with me from the stands, bolted from the bleachers and in complete distress headed toward his brother. Colin wanted the eyeglasses fixed RIGHT NOW, but we couldn’t fix them immediately, and Colin, who was 14-1/2, had a meltdown. What Patrick remembers is other players’ bewilderment at Colin’s reaction. Then they started laughing. The humiliation stung, preventing us from recognizing Colin’s consuming concern for and love of his brother.
Reflecting on his childhood, Patrick sees how he internalized Colin’s anxiety and made it his own. He also tended to berate Colin (imitating a parent?) and tell him what to do. But both brothers did and do demonstrate love for each other. One night Patrick, age 12, told me he needed to change his plans for college because he had to remain in the area for Colin’s sake.
Patrick had opportunities in junior high and high school to write about issues that impacted his life. By then, Colin had moved into an apartment, but was still very much a part of our lives. I encouraged Patrick to write about life with a brother with autism, but he chose not to. He feared that his peers would reject him for having a sibling who was different.
During our phone conversation I realized Patrick’s formation as a Catholic growing up in the Fye household, and now as a college student living away from home, have instilled depth of thought and compassion.
“What are your dreams for Colin?” I asked him. “I would like to see him get a job someplace. I’d like to see him stay with his roommate. I’d like to see him enjoy life,” Patrick said. “He is a human being just like all of us. We all have flaws. He deserves to live a good life.”
Patrick said he wants to learn more about autism, to research the disability, and to “try to help you guys out (referring to his dad and me) with Colin.”
He said he’s proud of his older brother for what he can do and the activities in which he’s involved. His Catholicism has taught him that Christ doesn’t equate love with ability or disability. “Jesus has the same amount of love for (Colin).”
“Love and justice must motivate each of us to work for a transformation of our own hearts so that we can transform the world around us,” Cardinal O’Malley said in his letter. “This is the message of Pope Francis.”
The concern about his brother’s Facebook page helped me to see that Patrick is beginning to view his brother as a masterpiece. That transformation of heart is a masterpiece itself.