Sunday, January 15, 2017

He's My Brother: The Special Needs Sibling Relationship

There is something remarkable about siblings of individuals with special needs. I cannot speak from my own experience, but we know so many children who have grown up with a brother or sister with a disability, and I have seen how they are shaped by their unique circumstances and their relationships with their siblings.

Andrew has an older brother with cerebral palsy, and I just know that their relationship has contributed to all of the things that I love about him today. His example of unconditional love and pure acceptance of his brother has paved the way for us to be able to live the beautiful life that we now enjoy. When they were young, he was fiercely protective over him and was always the first to defend his brother when someone said something unkind. He always included him in whatever he was involved with, and he made sacrifices every day to put the needs of his brother ahead of his own. He remembers being very young and throwing pennies into the fountain at The Village, making a wish that his brother could walk.. (insert heart explosion here).

Siblings are a valuable resource in our life. They are a part of who we are, and the benefits of a healthy sibling relationship can last a lifetime. Surely, being the sibling of a child with a disability must come with frustration, anger, sadness, and other negative feelings from time to time, but it has to also make you grow in kindness, compassion and sensitivity to others.

I recently received a heart-wrenching email from a new Mom of twins - one who has CP, and one who does not - and she was having a really tough time coming to terms with the reality of her situation. She was feeling like she was either spending too much time with one child and depriving the other, or forcing one child to do things he wasn't comfortable with just so the other could enjoy time playing. My heart broke for her, because I can just imagine how difficult it must be to have to make choices and sacrifices like that when the needs of your children are different. The thing is, however, that these differences also exist in typical sibling relationships. There is always one who needs more attention at certain times, and for most parents, there will always be the challenge of recognizing and meeting the needs of your children and balancing the needs of your family. I shared with this Mom that I take comfort in the knowledge and experiences of families we know who have older children that have grown up in a similar situation. One child might always require a little extra attention, and the other child will grow to understand that. She will find ways to manage both of her children's needs - and not just manage them but to have fun with them and enjoy her time with them.

We have witnessed some beautiful sibling relationships blossom over the years. This is one of them.
Our friend, Manisha shares her experiences of growing up with a brother with a disability:


My name is Manisha Bishop. I am 19-years-old from Newfoundland and am currently completing my bachelor of Social Work at Memorial University. I have lived a very unique life, one that not many can say they have. There have been ample challenges and struggles in my life, however, I would not trade my experience and the love surrounding me for the world. I believe I have also found my purpose in life. I would like to start off by telling you a little bit about the most important and influential person in my life - my brother, Mitchell. Flash back to 16 years ago, I was informed that I would be getting a baby brother! The day he arrived was like no other. He came home wrapped in a little blue blanket with yellow ducks on it. My parents brought him in and I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach as I held him in my arms for the first time. I could not wait to play with him! I had planned to do so many fun things with him - play soccer, hide and seek, running races, and so much more! But as we all know, plans change. Life is a series of unplanned events. The only thing that is certain is that the world is going to keep turning, no matter what.

After a short few months it was undeniable that something was wrong. Mitchell was not meeting any baby milestones so my parents decided to reach out to doctors to see what was going on. After MANY hours at the Janeway Children’s Hospital, Mitchell was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. What is Cerebral Palsy? Well to put it simply, (as it is a very complex diagnosis), Cerebral Palsy or CP is a non-contagious, non-genetic disability which inhibits the brain and muscles from performing to their highest ability. Mitchell’s CP is due to the lack of oxygen his brain received at birth, causing scarring on his brain. So, post-diagnosis things changed, plans changed, feelings changed. The feelings of loss and sorrow were indescribable for me, as well as for my parents. Having a child with special needs is nothing someone plans for. Among many other things, it can be shocking, scary, anger provoking and just plain sad. However, my parents dove right in and provided the best care possible for both me and my brother. Despite the fact that Mitchell has been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, this does not limit or define him in anyway. If you were to ask me about Mitchell, the first way to describe him would be as my brother, then he is my friend, then he is my torment, next my movie buddy, a bird lover, an avid plane watcher, a SpongeBob fan, a hair puller, the best hugger, my photography model, a caring and loving human, my support system, a resilient individual, I could go on and on!

Being the sister of someone living with Cerebral Palsy shapes you differently than most. You quickly learn that your sibling’s needs are very important, the number one priority even. This may take some acceptance and maturity to comprehend. My parents continuously encouraged me to speak to them if I felt “left out” which has been beneficial for both me and our relationships in the long run. Our close knit relationship has helped me deal with the challenges that are often present with a sibling with a disability. You also grow up very fast. (I think I learned what to do if Mitchell had a seizure before I learned handwriting). You deal with a lot of more intense emotions and fears than most young children. Anxiety is present from a very young age. Why are all these people staring at my brother throwing a tantrum? What will my friends think when they meet my brother? You are more understanding and accepting- maybe of the kid in your school in the wheelchair or the man who cannot speak. Your views on the world and your appreciation for the little things is different, in a better way. I understand that being able to describe my pain or to complete basic life skills is a blessing. I often felt the self-provoked need to compensate for Mitchell’s disability, to ensure my parents didn’t miss out on their expectations for me and my brother. I tried to play every sport and do very well in school, however, I now realize that there was no need to “compensate”, as Mitchell is and has always been successful in his own way. Although there may be some difficult times, being the sibling of someone living with a disability will make you into a caring, respectful, patient, loving individual. I am who I am today because of who he is.

Having a sibling with a disability takes one back to the roots of being human; being caring, accepting, respectful, kind, etc. Mitchell has given me many morals and taught me many life lessons- which were conveyed by him non-verbally. I am so glad I have had the opportunity to flourish next to him his entire life. I have learned to be more accepting of all walks (or wheels) of life. He has taught me not to focus on the “what if’s” in life. I have learned to focus on the present rather than on what could have been. I have learned to look at life through the eyes of possibility. Without the possibility of something, it can never become a reality. Mitchell has proven to me that everyone has something wonderful to contribute to this world. I hope that others will learn to see potential in everyone, as Mitchell has taught me to do. He has influenced me to work in a helping profession to change a little piece of the world. I believe Mitchell was placed with our family because he was meant to love and be loved to the fullest capacity, which is what gives me great pride about my family. I truly believe my purpose in life is to be his big sister.

Mitchell is now in high-school. He can confidently walk around and trust me when I say he can get his point across, even without words. Mitchell continues to amaze me every day with his slightly slower but profound accomplishments. In his 16 years, Mitchell has triumphed in many sports such as Challenger Baseball, downhill skiing, and swimming. He has learned to crawl, walk, and fast walk (especially when mom tells him it is time for bed!). Mitchell has learned to communicate with us using some sign language and many different sounds. My heart is so full of pride and love for Mitchell and all that he is and all he will become. It took me a while to realize that Mitchell is something better than “normal”, which I spent so much time wishing for him - he is special.


Manisha, thank you for sharing your story. Yours is a unique perspective, and one that is important to share because I believe it can help so many parents who might be worrying about the dynamics between their children. How lucky you are to have had the opportunity of a life that isn't available to everyone. You and Mitchell have an incredibly strong bond, and all that you have learned about love and compassion will carry you far in life. I wish you nothing but the best!

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