Being the Little Brother of a Boy With Autism



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*Names have been changed to honor privacy.

Miss B: You realize that he is an amazing kid, right?
Me: Aww, thank you so much!

I ruffle Sawyer’s sweaty hair and smile back at his preschool teacher. The same preschool teacher who wrapped her arms around me three years earlier when I was trapped in the defeated and heart broken stage of my journey with Wesley. The same teacher who reassured me and guided me and propped me up when I was falling down.

Now, three years later, I pick Sawyer up from the same school, with the same teacher. It’s his turn now.

Miss B: No really. I need you to know he is remarkable. He’s kind. He’s patient. He’s helpful. He’s unbelievably thoughtful. He is our calm amidst the storm and such a bright spot in our class.

My eyes fill with tears as I realize the magnitude of the compliment she is giving him. I’ve waited years to hear these words. To receive this validation that I’ve made the right choices for my children. That perhaps, after all, I have a better handle on this parenting thing than I give myself credit for.

Me: Thank you Miss B. It means a lot! We are quite proud of him!

I look down at Sawyer and watch him playing with a toy car, pretending he doesn’t know we’re talking about him—a skill he has mastered over the years. I kneel down, wrap my arms around his little body and whisper into his ear.

Me: You know Mommy is so proud of you, right?

Sawyer: Yeeesssss Mom. He says, embarrassed but flashing me his dimple of gratitude (compliments and affirmations are part of his love language). His smile confirms to me that he knows he is loved. I smile back and hold his hand as we walk to the car.

I’ve talked a lot in the past about our journey with Wesley and autism—about obstacles he’s had to face and lessons we’ve learned as a family, about how our hearts swell with pride as we watch him working so hard every day to be brave in a world that doesn’t always make sense to him.

But I’ve never talked about what this means for Sawyer—about what it means to be the little brother of a boy with autism.

It has sometimes meant getting the scraps.
And going second.

It often means cancelled plans.
Distracted parents.
The pressure to please.

It means being subjected to double standards.
Sibling meltdowns.
And an older brother who can be less than gentle.

I imagine it’s often frustrating. Lonely. Confusing.
Difficult for a young four year old to wrap his brain and heart around.

And for as many nights I’ve lost sleep worrying about Wesley’s happiness, I’ve lost the same amount of sleep worrying about the effects of Wesley’s behavior on Sawyer’s happiness.

How much should we protect him from?
How much of this reality do we let him see?
How should we adjust our parenting style for him?
What should a conversation about autism look like for a 4 year old?
Are we meeting his needs?
Does he feel seen, heard, understood, validated?

I worry.
And then I worry some more.

Because what works for Wes, what we’ve been trained by professionals and doctors to do to help Wes operate at his very best, isn’t necessarily what Sawyer needs.

They have different challenges.
Different gifts.
They see the world through different eyes.
And as such, they require different guidance to help them navigate.

That has been our challenge with Sawyer.
To help him find his own way in a world that can appear to revolve around doctors appointments, therapy sessions and anxiety attacks.

We send Sawyer to a special preschool where half of the students are “typically developing” and the other half have a “developmental delay” of some sort (speech delay, autism, down syndrome, sensory processing, anxiety, etc.). His classroom is a balance of both students.

Why would you send Sawyer to a school for children with special needs?

I get asked this question on a regular basis.
I know the asker is almost always also thinking:

Aren’t you afraid he’ll fall behind?
Certainly he’ll pick up bad behavior!
Doesn’t he get enough of this at home?!

And I get it.
These are fair questions.
Valid points.
Concerns that certainly crossed our mind before we made the decision we thought was best for Sawyer and our family.

But Ben and I see Sawyer.
We see the gift he was born with.
We see the opportunity we have to develop compassion, kindness, coping skills and patience within our son. We know it is important for him to find himself outside of his brother’s challenges, but we also know that a big part of his greatest gifts and talents come from his brother’s challenges.

Being the little brother of a boy with autism has not defined Sawyer.
But it has certainly shaped him in ways that make this Momma beam with pride.

Ziggy has down syndrome. Every day Sawyer gives him a high five and tells him to have a great day. They sit by each other in circle time.

Max has anxiety that leads to behavioral challenges. Sawyer often reports that Max has had a very “frustrating day”.  Sawyer shares his toys with him and reminds him to take deep breaths.

Bailey has delayed motor skills and requires additional help on the playground. Sawyer taught her how to hoola hoop.

When Sawyer looks at these sweet kiddos, he doesn’t see down syndrome or anxiety or autism.  He sees his friends. He sees kids with challenges just like the rest of us. He sees kids not afraid to show the world who they really are. He sees kids deserving of love and compassion. He sees his brother.

I’m grateful for a boy who champions for his brother.
For a boy who is fiercely loyal to his family.
A boy who doesn’t hold grudges.
A boy who gives the biggest hugs.
A boy who fills in the cracks of our beautifully broken little family.

While the school district will define Sawyer as “typically developing”, I know my son is anything but typical. He is special. With unique gifts and talents and dreams and fears. Because diagnosis or not, I believe all of our children have special needs.

Read more about of journey with autism here.

Ashley Stock
I'm Ashley. Sometimes I craft, occasionally I cook, everyday I write, and I'm always Momma. This is my blog. I keep it real while still seeing the rainbows and butterflies in all of life's lessons.
Ashley Stock
Ashley Stock
Ashley Stock

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  1. This was so well-written, bursting with so much mama-love. You just made me tear up at my desk. Your love for the individual that each of your boys is shines through so bright! Thank you for this, and for inspiring me to be a better mama, myself.

  2. Wow, this is such a special post. I have to admit that I generally only follow you via Instagram but I saw the precious picture of your boys and was moved to carve the time to read it. Neither of my children have autism but I think all parents can relate when you said “your children have different challenges and different gifts and see the worlds through different eyes.” Beautiful piece and thank you for sharing it, we’re all better off having read it.

  3. I am so thankful when you write about Wes and Sawyer. I have a 4 year old daughter with autism, and a 2 year old “typical” son. I have the same concerns about our little guy that you do for Sawyer. I could feel my heart aching as I read the things that worry you. However, we have also found that our little guy seems to have an understanding of his sister way beyond his young age. As a baby, he could be fussy and when his sister needed my attention, I would look over and he just started playing contently. It blew my mind. He is a 2 year old and still has his moments, but he definitely seems to be developing a compassion and sensitivity that is amazing. Thanks again for sharing with us!

    • This is just the most beautiful tribute to Sawyer. Also, I see this as a beautiful tribute to you and Ben.
      You are amazing and I am proud of you

  4. Hannah Smelcer says:

    I am an older sister to a fourteen-year-old brother who has autism. You are absolutely correct, Sawyer faces challenges just as much as Wesley does–they are just different challenges. As a sibling of an autistic brother, I faced several unique challenges that my typically developing peers did not. They did not understand the severity of a meltdown or panic attack, but I understood. I was able to connect to those who had autism or a developmental delay with compassion, understanding, and love. Because of my brother and his condition, I am motivated to be the best there is for these autistic children. I am currently an ABA therapist and am in school to earn my Liberal Studies degree and to become a special needs teacher, and that is only because I grew up around therapists, special needs children, special needs teachers, and most importantly my autistic brother. Keep up the great work with Wes and Sawyer!

  5. Brittany ball-Thompson says:

    Such a beautiful post! You, my dear, are such a great mama! You are doing a wonderful job with raising such wonderful boys.

  6. Heather Robbins says:

    As a teacher of children with special needs, an aunt to 2 boys with fragile x and a mother of 2 children who attended “inclusive preschools” as typical children, I applaud your decision. Sawyer is being a role model, a leader, developing compassion and probably learning SO MUCH from the teachers who are more educated than “day care/child care/babysitters.” You are fortunate as I was to have your child benefit from such a setting. My kids are 20 and 23 and have such compassion and love for those with special needs because of their years with their special friends! And you are RIGHT….. As a professor, I always taught my early childhood students that WE ALL HAVE SPECIAL NEEDS in some way! ❤️
    BTW…. In NC we have SIBSHOPS….. Time for siblings of kids with special needs to get together and talk/play/etc. Perhaps, there is something similar in your area.

  7. Ashley, Its been awhile since we have communicated, but I want you to know that I love you. I am so proud of the way you and your family are handling the situation life is placing before you.

    My oldest brother is special needs. As the younger sister, I can assure you that Sawyer will never take this for granted. It is a gift we have been given. To be placed in the life of those sweet spirits who need a bit extra. I have learned compassion, service, gratitude, empathy, love, kindness, charity, and how to be a friend to many just from being the little sister of a boy with severe special needs.

    I’m a grown woman now. My older brother is 38. I am so thankful to be a part of his life and how it has shaped mine. Sawyer will feel the same. And the best part, is that we feel our Savior so much closer. xoxo


  8. LOVE this post. Made me tear up. You are such an amazing mom + writer.

  9. Thank you for this! I needed to read this tonight. Our daughter is the little sister of a boy with autism and I constantly wonder how our journey on this new normal will affect her. She’s been scared, hurt, pushed aside, confused, acted out, all of it, in her journey of understanding all of this. Our youngest kids are amazing ones who will be there for our spectrum kids for the long haul

  10. This is so so beautiful! And the things that are developing in Sawyer are things that you can’t put a price tag on. What a beautiful, difficult, and rewarding journey for all of your family.

  11. This post has my heart bursting! I commend Ben and yourself to choosing to send Sawyer to such a school! At the tender age of 4 you both have taught and instilled in him values that grown adults will never have! People/Parents like the two of you will make the future of this crazy scary world a much better place to live by raising phenomenal children! xo

  12. My son attends a school that is just like Sawyer’s. The students are so incredible with him and patient and kind. He has grown so much in the past year. I think its wonderful that you have done that with your son and at only 4 years old his extraordinary compassion is already evident. My daughter, who is typical, was past the point of me sending her to an inclusive preschool before my son was diagnosed with autism. I would have totally done the same thing. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  13. This is so so beautiful! And the things that are developing in Sawyer are things that you can’t put a price tag on. What a beautiful, difficult, and rewarding journey for all of your family.

  14. Thank you for this beautiful post. I am a mother of three amazing souls, the oldest of whom has a rare genetic disorder that presents with multiple special needs. My younger two are so blessed by this… The compassion and patience that my son has for not only his sister, but for everyone, amazes me on a daily basis. He doesn’t get enough credit, because for as hard as my oldest tries every day to move mountains and achieve the seemingly impossible, my son is quietly doing the same. You have two beautiful boys, and I’m so excited to “meet” your daughter because she will be beautiful and blessed to be in your family, too!

  15. Beautiful. Just beautiful. My oldest of 3, my only boy, has autism and I can relate to every word you wrote. I have seen such heartache from my girls but the Lord is using those moments to give them huge compassion for others. Praying for you as a fellow momma who is doing her best for her family!

  16. Brian Dwyre says:

    Wow, such a heart warming message. Melts my heart out and able to see more of you being a mother of these two kids. Thank you for sharing this with us. You are an inspiration. As for your kids, maybe you could check out Kidioke Kidioke, a sing-along music playing story books for kids. It will be a great holiday gift to your little ones.

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  19. Ashley, you are an amazing, thoughtful, inspired mom. I’m proud to know you.

  20. You make me miss my mom who alway do everything for me not complain. Ashey, you are so really great. You inspire me become better momy. Thank this post so much.

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