My brother Matthew at the aquarium today, with a photo of me below. Matt is 27 (2 years younger than I am), loves animals, Disney, the ocean, Christmas, umbrellas, and road trips. He has autism. Siblings of autistic people like myself are 20-30% more likely to have autistic traits and 22x more likely than the general population to have autism.
I have freaky spatial skills that come to me in bursts, if I remember you from a party I likely remember where you were standing in the room, what direction you were facing, etc. On an epic first date I had years ago, we walked around LACMA and the park I can still tell you exactly the route we took and what was said every step of the way. I’m not a kinetic learner but sometimes I can shake off all my “thinking,” look at a contraption, and immediately see the fix. Most of you know me as a screenwriter, a liberal arts hippie, but in a former life I was pre-med, I won awards for mathematics, and I was recruited for the computer science team and the Navy.
Sometimes, I feel guilty that the traits Matthew has make him disabled and seen as less able to serve society, but the same traits in me at a lesser dose make me a superstar (my key and only demo being Asian American parents, this is, of course, before I came out as a writer lol).
I understand my brother, I understand a bit how he sees the world, a lurid clash of emotions and the rare firm shapes, and how those firm shapes are clung to in the chaos. When we were little I was the only one who understood him, kind of like twins with a secret language. I could translate what he wanted and needed to parents and caregivers. When he took classes at Rio Hondo Community College, I took my Ivy League ass to class with him and sat next to him, in part to translate, in part to tell anyone who dared make fun of him to fuck off.
Matt and I took a Route 66 road trip together in Oct 2013, just the 2 of us (I just asked him for the date because he remembers everything). Matt doesn’t drive. I remember wishing sometimes that he was the type of brother who could take over the wheel sometime, but that didn’t put a damper on our trip.
Matt doesn’t feel safe around a lot of people, including some male family members and longtime family friends. He’ll be hesitant, tiptoeing around an explosive personality out of fear of triggering an outburst. I can feel his tension. I understand it, I know it.
One day I was driving him in my hometown, and I look over at him affectionately and he was humming to himself and I realized, “He feels safe.” And I was so proud of myself. I’ve been taught to be fierce, to be masculine, to be strong, and I can be all these things but I’m more proud that a mentally disabled vulnerable person feels safe around me. That is not my weakness, that is my strength.
I was dancing with a 6’3″ man on Friday, who could have crushed me, who could have intimidated me, and instead he made me feel so comfortable we danced. He was confident, handsome, well-spoken, funny, welcoming. The truly strong don’t have to prove themselves strong. The truly strong don’t have to create fear to satisfy their ego. The truly strong can use their strength to create safety.The truly strong can use their strength to create safety. Click To Tweet
My brother Matthew feels safe around me because he knows that I am powerful, that I would protect him, that I love him, and that I would never lash out at him, not even “if I was having a bad day.” I would never insult him even if it was “just locker room talk.” I wouldn’t throw him and his dignity under a train to get votes. To be able to sit next to him in a car, and have him sit there beside me unafraid – that is a privilege and an honor, and one I never want to lose.
If you ever find yourself counting your strengths and feeling weak don’t forget to ask yourself who feels safe around you, and add that to your list. If someone feels safe around you, they are acknowledging your strength and your decency. Don’t disregard your power to protect and create safety, it is a gift.