Family Almanac

Brother Must Defend 'Nerd Syndrome' Sister

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 19, 2005

Q. My daughter, coming up on 12, has Asperger's Syndrome and all the symptoms that this "nerd syndrome" is famous for.

She goes to an excellent program for low- and high-functioning autistic students; she understands this form of autism and she makes a real effort to work in our strange world, which makes me so proud of her. She does act much like a second grader, however. She is gauche at times -- although she doesn't know it -- and often pedantic and long-winded, despite her pronounced speech impediment. She also reads social signals poorly and can be inflexible in her thinking, but she is a whiz at both electronic and card games; she is full of information -- most of which is correct -- and she is generous, kindhearted and guileless.

Her younger brother, nearly 10, is a lot of things she is not. He is graceful and good-looking, verbal and funny, and he's popular with both boys and girls. He also has an orderly mind, reads social situations well and fits in any group, which is quite important to him.

Our children do well when they play together at home but my boy notices, comments on and rides my girl about every mistake she makes whenever they play outside with other children. If she can't bob over these mean remarks, she plays with younger children or comes home to her solitary pursuits.

The problem is particularly bad this summer because they go to the same camp and he sometimes berates her from morning to night. She then acts out and my boy tells me that he has had to put up with this behavior ALL DAY, as if he didn't have anything to do with it!

I want my son to treat his only sibling with the kindness and respect she deserves, especially in front of others. How can I sell him on this? And how can we make him see that his behavior is unmanly, unattractive, unkind and unworthy?

A. Some children are quick to defend their siblings, but many act embarrassed or ashamed if their sib has a disability.

This behavior is understandable, but it's not okay. You shouldn't let your son denigrate any child -- especially his sister -- but that is asking a lot of him.

Conformity is critical between 7 and 16, because most schoolchildren judge themselves by the way they are judged by their friends. Even the most self-confident child in the class will be mortified if he is the only one who wears glasses or who weighs way too much or whose big sister has a disability.

First see that your son understands Asperger's so well that he can explain it to his friends one day when his sister isn't around. They need to know that this neurodevelopmental problem just happens, and nobody really knows why.

They also need to know that most AS children talk early, with a good though limited vocabulary, but their language may be quite stilted and they may speak too loudly or too softly, too fast or too slow, or they may emphasize the wrong word or use no inflections at all.

They also may focus intently on a single interest, like the stock market, but have no idea how it works, for facts are easy for this child to learn while abstract thinking can be quite difficult. She will usually improve as she gets older, however, and do well at school and in college, and she often marries, too.

Empathy is harder for an AS child to achieve, however, for she doesn't understand how other people think or feel and she may have few friends, and even fewer boyfriends, as she grows up.

Once your son has told his buddies about his sister, expect him to be her champion, and to stand up for her, wherever he is, simply because this is the right thing to do. When he feels and acts like her protector, his friends will admire him for it and he will feel pretty good about himself, too.

Your son can smooth the way for her now, by inviting her to join him when he's playing with his friends, and if he won't do that, then call him home to play alone. A few corrections should teach your boy to be a better brother.

Your son has learned to make his sister pay a price for her Asperger's. And now he must unlearn it.

Questions? Send them toadvice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company