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A Twin’s Journey into Autism MAG
I am one of those rare people who has the good fortune to be a twin. My sister, Isabella, and I share many traits, tastes, and opinions, but there is one important difference between us: Isabella is autistic.
Autism affects one in 88 children. It is diagnosed more frequently than pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined. Thousands of families are affected, including mine. The special care and services an autistic child requires can place a significant financial burden on families. Isabella has received occupational, physical, and speech therapy, as well as applied behavioral analysis. People who don’t have firsthand experience with it may view autism in a negative light. Some ask ignorant questions about my sister and make hurtful comments.
For instance, we were shopping for shoes once when Isabella picked up another customer’s water bottle and drank from it. The owner of the bottle screamed at my sister and accused my mother of raising a teenager with no manners. She yelled, “What’s the matter with her?” I stepped in and apologized, explaining that my sister is autistic, and my mom gave the woman money for a new bottle of water. The woman then quipped, “Well, she looks normal.” I told my mom later that I struggle to understand how people lack tolerance and why they react with such vehement anger. She told me that I shouldn’t judge because I really do not know anything about that stranger.
I still struggle at times – it is hard to view intolerant people with compassion, especially when they mistreat your loved one. But I am starting to understand that teaching others about autism is ultimately more powerful than reacting in anger.
Because I want to share my family’s experiences, I volunteer with a number of organizations that help people with autism, including the Autism Theatre Initiative, Pony Power Therapies, and the Brooklyn Autism Center. I have also spoken about autism at a number of local groups. I urge people to be kinder and try to teach them that those with autism can lead successful lives too.
My latest endeavor is a collaboration with the Alpine Learning Group (a school for children and adults with autism) and a bake shop called Baked in a Cup. We created a specialty cupcake called the Alpine. Every time one is sold, a portion of the proceeds goes to the school.
Last fall, my mom and I volunteered with a local 4-H Club to clean up a local cemetery. We were hesitant to bring Isabella into this unfamiliar setting, since changes to her routine and new faces can overwhelm her. But, we decided to give it a try, and Isabella had a great time. She enjoyed being outdoors, exercising, helping, and socializing. She participated by raking leaves and picking up garbage. She laughed and did several of what we call her “happy twirls,” where she turns around in a circle one time with a big smile. She never looked scared or overwhelmed. She posed for a group picture with the other 4-H volunteers and held up her fingers to make a “4.” We make an effort to include Isabella and take her out to community activities as often as possible.
On my journey through life with my twin sister I’ve gone through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. At my high school, there are several sets of twin sisters, and I have felt envious of their close relationships and their ability to participate in typical teenage activities. I’ve felt angry that Isabella can’t always share the same experiences as me. However, I am now gratefully experiencing a new stage – acceptance.
I love my sister, and I love having her in my life. I have grown to accept and appreciate her for who she is. Just last night, I was studying for my math mid-term and she came in the room at just the right time and said, “You’re awesome.” She is kind and never judges. She hugs me, kisses me, and shows me genuine emotion and love. She makes me laugh so hard. She loves the theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and when we play it, she dances with abandon. She is fearless, and as a result is a much better ice skater than I am. She continues to better herself by writing in her journal every day.
Yes, I wish I had a twin to equally share all of life’s experiences, but Isabella gives me so much, just in a different way.