“Learning in the Valleys”

By Chloe Gruesbeck

Staff Writer

When my older sister, Anna, was officially diagnosed with Autism in 2000, it didn’t come as a surprise. The warning signs had been there for years; my parents had known Anna was different for some time. Honestly, I don’t ever remember anything different. Her noisy late night arguments with my parents, rushed trips to the psychiatrist and that pesky feeling of being a second priority were all just part of daily life.

Autism is a cognitive impairment present from early childhood that affects the brain’s normal development of communication and social skills. People with this disorder typically have a difficult time forming relationships in addition to learning abstract concepts, like math.

My sister is at the higher end of the spectrum. While she can still do some age-appropriate tasks, she will probably never be able to live independently. Everyday jobs like tying shoelaces, getting yourself ready in the morning and driving a car are tasks that Anna can’t do.

As a child, I remember being close to Anna, but as we have gotten older, the distance between us grows larger. This gap is filled with yelling matches and slammed doors. I suppose this is typical for two teenage siblings, but what I see in our relationship is different than others. I don’t understand her interests and thought process. I will never grasp how she doesn’t have the ability to comprehend all that my parents do for her, when I would be elated to receive even half the attention my parents give her.

Even though my sister and I don’t get along, I will always be there for her. Last summer, when she was rushed off to the ER after a bad reaction to a new medication, an incredible feeling of protectiveness washed over me. As I sat in an empty hospital waiting room on the Fourth of July, I worried about the years to come after my parents pass and how I will care for her.

This wasn’t the first trip to the hospital either. I have been through what seems like a lifetime of staying at friend’s houses or home alone while my parents seek help for her. Every time I am reminded of how lucky I am to have such supportive friends and family.

Even though there are difficult times, the good always outnumber the bad. Even with a cognitive impairment, my sister worked hard and was able to graduate high school. On her graduation day, my whole family and all her friends came over to celebrate, and there wasn’t a moment where she was not smiling. I’ve never seen my parents look so proud.

My grandma once told me “you do your learning in the valleys.” And from these experiences, I have learned to be independent, and not to rely on others. From Anna, I learned to always keep people at a safe distance because nobody’s perfect and they will always let you down one way or another. I grew up at a very young age and realized the world wasn’t a fair place.

My whole life I have questioned why this happened to my family. Why was it my sister that had seizures as a baby, cutting off the air supply to her brain and causing cognitive impairment? I always wonder what her life would have been like and what type of relationship we would have if she didn’t have a mental disability. But I try not to think about the “what ifs” because there is only what is. And this is my family’s reality; maybe someday I will accept this.