My Autistic Brother And I

Casey works at Wendy’s every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Saturday, he sleeps in and on Sunday, he goes to Petland to play with the puppies that are for sale. On Wednesdays, he goes to church. The timelines of those days are, of course, equally important as the days themselves. Casey leaves the house at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays so he can have a footlong sandwich at Subway for dinner. Then he walks to church and greets everyone before the service starts at 6. At 8, someone in our family picks him up, runs him by the gas station to purchase two 20-ounce Cokes for the following day, and only then does he come home to relay the message of the week to my mom and dad.

If you give to God, he will multiply your wealth.

Casey is standing in the living room of our doublewide in a maroon polo shirt, arms by his side, as he announces this Wednesday’s creed. I raise my eyebrows and look over at my dad who only says, “That’s great, buddy.” Casey heads for his room. When the door closes, I turn to Dad and say, sarcastically, “Well, that’s one lesson that you can take from church.” Dad turns away and goes to grab a Bud Light from the bottom of the fridge, signaling that we are not going to be talking about the pros and cons of the prosperity gospel tonight.

Church is massively important to Casey, which is why I don’t make any more jokes about the lesson. Plus, for 50-ish weeks of the year, I live in New York, so I am very much a visitor in this home now. This most recent visit, I was back to help out while my mom dealt with a medical emergency—less than perfect circumstances. One of the biggest hurdles we encountered while facing my mom needing surprise surgery was making sure we maintain Casey’s schedule. My parents insist it’s what Casey needs.

autism awareness

Casey, left, the author, right.

Courtesy

Being away from Casey after growing up with him for almost 20 years is difficult. I worry about him, and sometimes, the worry clouds the way I see him. The way I know him to be. Eleven months his junior, I never really considered Casey “different” when we were growing up. He had a different personality, sure. Different quirks. But, to me, he was always capable. Malleable in a way that I don’t think enough people gave him credit for. We hid shit from our parents like your everyday pair of brothers. We have jokes that only we understand.

There were some people along the way who made remarks about him—kids at school, or some Karen in Wal-Mart who would “get nervous” that Casey liked to just walk around the store and talk to customers. People who didn’t have the knowledge to understand. Overall though, Casey was just… Casey.

But when I left home, strangely, so did that confidence in his abilities. Over the years, in my mind he’s become “more autistic” and less adept. I, like a lot of people, have watered him down, letting the title of “autism” do more work than the core of who Casey is. Going back to help with the family felt like an intimidating first look at a future I’d agreed to as a child: one day, you’ll be responsible for taking care of Casey. As a kid, that promise is very sweet, but as I wade further into my thirties, it’s becoming more real. Casey is great, but I want my own life. How do you say that to someone? Can you?

autism awareness

The author, left, and Casey, right.

Courtesy


Before I traveled down to Tennessee, I was watching this show on Amazon called As We See It, about three autistic adults living independently with a touch of assistance from a live-in helper (played by Sosie Bacon). They have jobs and social lives, or, well… at least they’re working on the social life part. Better yet, the three autistic characters are played by three actors who are autistic themselves. I watched it and made a note in my phone to show Casey the trailer when I got back home. Maybe he would be inspired.

When I pulled it up on the TV, I watched him lean over the recliner in our family’s living room. He was taken in, completely. He asked me about the actors and the show. Told me it was cool that one of the characters worked at Arby’s like he used to. (Important Note: Casey was Employee of the Month when he worked at Arby’s. Twice.) But by the time I had queued up the trailer, I had already been reminded: Casey doesn’t need to be “inspired.” I’d been home for hardly any time at all but, for me, it never takes long to remember that Casey is fine. He’s always been babied, but Casey is far from needy. The representation made him happy, but Casey didn’t need to be coached into being one of those characters. 50 weeks away, a few days at home, it occurs to me, as it always does, that Casey is a character all on his own.

He has hurdles that we will have to eventually address. He doesn’t drive, though he’s taken lessons in the past. He’s never lived on his own, but he’s familiar with buying groceries and paying bills. Sometimes, I wonder if we’ve done more damage to Casey by suggesting he can’t do things instead of pushing him. Enough to realize it was time to have a conversation with him about what life he wants, as opposed to the plan that we’ve chosen for him.

I don’t think this perception shift is rare. Rather, I think a lot of us who are close to neurodivergent persons do the same. That Thursday, I put my own skepticism to the test.

A few years back, when I came out as gay to my conservative parents, they asked me not to tell Casey. They suggested that he wouldn’t understand it. Casey has met my partner under the pretense that we were good friends, but I never pushed it further. On the way home from work, at the gas station, I looked at Casey and said, “You know Andrew who lives with me? Do you know what he means to me?”

“I do,” Casey said, plainly.

“No. Do you know what he means to me. That he’s a very important person in my life?”

Casey, unbothered, said, “Yes.”

“But like,” I was stumbling far more than Casey. “Like, he’s my… boyfriend.”

“Oh, I know,” Casey said. “Did you know his birthday is October 16? And that when we first met, it was in a CVS? Isn’t that funny? Oh, and did you want me to get you a Diet Coke when I go into the gas station?”

Of every coming out in my life, that one was by far the easiest. Casey went into the gas station and bought me a Diet Coke, and we went home.

autism awareness

The author, left, and Casey, right.

Courtesy


On Friday, I picked Casey up from his final Wendy’s shift of the week. I decided to broach the next piece of the conversation I wanted to have with him. Years and years ago, my parents decided that Casey would move in with me after they were gone. I agreed, wanting to be as helpful as possible. Then we never discussed it again, and we surely didn’t discuss it with Casey. Being home for my mom’s surgery really highlighted how real that promise was and that, no matter the path forward, we needed to discuss the future.

“Casey, one day, when we’re older, would you want to move in with me and Andrew?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t think I would want to do that,” he said, stumbling a bit as if he were looking for a more apologetic way to say it. “I am not really interested in living with you.”

“Oh, thank God.”

The words fell out of my mouth. He looked at me a bit incredulously, as if he couldn’t believe I said it so bluntly. As equipped as I believe Casey is, people rarely, if ever, talk to Casey that frankly. Sometimes, people avoid him entirely, like he’s fragile china. Once the shock of my honesty wore off, he laughed. Casey is resilient, but he rarely gets to display it as people make choices on his behalf regularly. There are likely a whole host of reasons why, but the result is the same, with much of society infantilizing the neurodivergent.

autism awareness

Casey.

Courtesy

Casey is not my ward, something that he and I both love. He’s my brother. He’s weird, don’t get me wrong. He commandeers my Spotify and has fucked up my algorithm beyond repair. My most-listened to artists are Rosemary Clooney and Clint Black and I will never forgive him for that. He stays up too late for my liking, and he texts me GIFs almost hourly, despite me asking that he doesn’t during work hours. He is immensely stubborn, watches QVC for hours at a time, and purposefully turns on the home security system when I’m outside just to frustrate me.

But I’m also weird. I have OCD and when I’m alone, I touch the corners of tables four times exactly. I watch Gilmore Girls every night before bed, and I eat leftover hot sauce out of ramekins with my fingers. People still treat me with respect and autonomy, so what exactly is my excuse when it comes to Casey?

“So, are you saying you want to live with Mom and Dad instead?” I asked. He said, “No, I don’t want to live with them either. I want to live by myself.”

“Yeah, trust me. I get that,” I said. “Let’s make it happen then.” And then he listed off places he might like to live. Sevierville. Or maybe Strawberry Plains. “Did you know there’s a Cracker Barrel on Strawberry Plains, Justin?” The planning had clearly started a while back.

I told my parents about the conversation I had with Casey and his living situation. My dad let out of a sigh and told me that he already knew. “I think this is something he’s done a lot of thinking about,” he said. And I leaned forward and squinted a little bit—seriously? “Well, then we should start having conversations with him about money. And life skills. We should make this happen.” So we’re working on it. As Casey’s friend and brother, I’m going to make sure we keep pushing it forward.

I’ve been responding to Casey’s text GIFs more often since I got back. I’ve started calling him on Wednesdays to ask what the sermon was, partly because we really should try and keep that prosperity gospel talk to a minimum. We trade stories about our week, and now, once he’s asked about my life, he also asks about Andrew. The calls don’t last long because Casey kind of hates the phone. But I want him to know the conversation, if he wants to have it, will always be there. Not because he needs it, but because I want it.

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