different, not wrong.
By Arpitha Sistla
Being the older sister of a younger brother with autism has been both challenging and gratifying. Throughout the years, I’ve learned many lessons from my brother on empathy, identity, and understanding.
Digging his fingernails into my arms, my brother embraced me and let the tears run down his face and into the sharp sequins of my dress.
I caressed his head and held him close, feeling Aarush’s frantic heartbeat below my own. As he heaved in between muffled screams, I wasn’t exactly sure if he was gasping for air or trying to suffocate.
“Stop it!” the bazaar owner screamed across from us, glaring at us, anger in his eyes and disapproval in his gaping mouth. What prompted his sudden outburst was that my 8-year-old brother had just knocked an entire row of paper dolls off of the exhibit table.
My parents attempted to let the owner know that my brother did not have any malicious intent—his meltdown was caused by the loud honking sounds and bright white lights and foreign, sugar sweet smells of Indian street food.
New and unfamiliar sounds, lights, and smells are experiences that many travelers associate with vacation and paradise. For my brother, however, his autism meant that he experienced these very same sensations as if they were his own personal hell.
As I stretched myself out using one hand to wipe the warm tears off of my brother’s face and the other to frantically replace the dolls back on to the table, I heard the store manager mumble under his breath a question I would later find myself well-acquainted with—“What is wrong with him, is he retarded?
That day in the bazaar, 12-year-old me did not have the words to answer his question.
Over half a decade of questioning, research, and maturing later, I finally do.
The complete and honest truth is, there is nothing “wrong” with him. An autistic brain, which is wired differently and with abnormal sensory responses than a neurotypical brain, is not so much wrong as it is different.
Different. It’s different how Aarush has to crack his fingers in a specific order before he gets into a car. It’s different how Aarush can only respond in one or two words. It’s different how Aarush cannot understand what is socially unacceptable. But, it’s not wrong.
It’s different how I feel a painful twang of embarrassment as I sit down to help Aarush learn how to read and write even though he is in middle school. It’s different how I still play games from our childhood even when we are both teenagers just to see him smile after a difficult day at school. It’s different how he and I vent to each other not through traditional conversation but through the robotic voice of his speaking device.
The bond Aarush and I share is different, but certainly not wrong.
As I understand more about Aarush’s autism, the way others view him because of it, and the way he likely will never be able to fully communicate, my burning passion to use my ability to speak in ways that are meaningful grows in tandem.
In high school, this passion has manifested itself in my pursuits of talking about issues important to me through journalism, public speaking, and performing arts. In college and beyond, I envision myself writing cases, speaking at court hearings, and enacting policies that uplift the often ignored voices of individuals with disabilities.
Being the older sister of Aarush has taught me that different doesn’t mean wrong.
Though Aarush may never quite have the grasp of language to say those words, every moment I am with him, he teaches me this invaluable lesson.
Although the bazaar manager from years ago may not have realized how much those who are considered by society to be without a voice have to offer, it is my duty as an older sister, as an activist, and as a human to make sure that as many people as possible do.
This essay took on many different forms at first. Surprisingly, what inspired me to write about this topic was a workshop I attended about writing poetry. It inspired me to write my essay in such a way that it conveyed complex feelings with imagery (which is a really iconic part of poetry writing).
Arpitha Sistla is a high school senior in Eureka, Missouri. She is a Co-Online Editor in Chief for the Messenger, her school’s newspaper. This will be her 3rd year on staff. Outside of the Messenger, she is a dancer, singer and loves to volunteer. In school, she is involved with Show Choir, Speech and Debate and Mock Trial. In her free time, she enjoys watching YouTube documentaries, traveling and spending time with her friends and family.