Right around the time Adrian and I were considering a second child, Martin was diagnosed with autism, and we put off the decision in order to focus on getting Martin help. The years since diagnosis have been therapies and special diets and supplements and doctor visits and too little sleep. I was almost 36 years old when Martin was born. By the time Adrian and I cleared our heads enough to think again about a second child, we would have been looking at a 40+ pregnancy. That, combined with the increased risk of having a second child on the spectrum if you already have one, sealed the decision. Martin would remain an only child. All of our resources belong to Martin alone, for his recovery.
But alas, a typically developing sibling sure might help. A brother or sister could provide a full-time role model and, if we were lucky, a buddy to protect Martin from neighborhood cruelty, from slights and oversights and bullying.
With that in mind, allow me to sing the praises of Martin’s cousin, Mandy, who is also an only child. Mandy and Martin were born only ten weeks apart and, though they live four hours away from each other, have known each other since babyhood. They get three or four solid visits annually.
When Mandy came to our home last August—Martin had already turned five, and Mandy was about to—they were finally old enough that I thought Mandy might need some explanation of why Martin seems different. Immediately, I found an opportunity to address the issue: Mandy and her mother (my younger sister) arrived after Martin had gone to sleep for the night, Martin’s regular sitter was at the house, and Mandy was hungry, so I volunteered to take them out for pizza.
Ah, to have a kid who can go out for pizza!
“Hey Mandy,” I said. We were sitting in the pizzeria waiting for our order. “Do you know how to read?”
I knew she didn’t.
“Well, guess what?” I asked. I dragged my voice, to indicate that something amazing was coming. “Martin already knows how to read!” Indeed, Martin started reading young. He read fluently (comprehension is a separate issue) by age four-and-a-half.
Mandy opened her mouth in astonishment and gasped toward her mother.
Ah, to have a kid who gasps toward mom when surprised!
I went in for the kill. “But, Mandy, you know what? You are very good at talking”—she is—“and Martin is not good at talking at all. That’s how it is: Some kids are better at talking, and other kids are better at reading.”
I wasn’t sure this little speech would work.
Mandy and Martin’s visit that August was delightful. Mandy, who is naturally bossy, in the best way possible, forced Martin to interact constantly, and she decided to talk for both of them. Upon Mandy’s request, and Martin’s acquiescence, they both slept in the big bed in our guest room, and I knew when they woke up because I heard the giggling start. One morning as I stood in the kitchen, they walked through. Mandy had Martin’s arm over her shoulder and was pulling him along by the wrist as she announced, “We decided to go outside.” Martin didn’t mind Mandy’s commanding spirit. It brought out his best. He responded to her every whim, including when she thrust paper upon book in front of him and demanded, “Read this for me!”
The big test came when Mandy had been with us almost a week. Martin had a hippotherapy session, and I brought Mandy along. While Martin was riding, Mandy befriended the farm proprietor’s seven-year-old granddaughter. I could tell that Mandy was impressed to be playing with an older girl, and I thought, This is it. She’s not going to be so eager to hang around Martin when this big kid was in the picture. Maybe she’ll even be embarrassed by her awkward cousin.
Curse me for that lack of faith. As soon as she saw Martin dismount the horse, Mandy scampered over, grabbed his wrist, and ordered him to come play. Then she tugged Martin to the seven-year-old and said, “This is my cousin Martin!”
Mandy came to visit again this February, when my sister and I took the two kids to see The Lion King on Broadway. Saturday mornings Martin usually goes to the Equinox gym with Adrian and plays in the kids’ club there while Adrian works out. The Saturday morning of Mandy’s visit, Adrian volunteered to take both kids to the kids’ club.
After they returned, I asked Adrian whether Mandy had still wanted to play with Martin at the kids’ club, or whether, when in a crowd, she had gravitated to the typically developing children instead.
Adrian reported that when he came after his workout to pick the cousins up, Mandy was indeed playing with the typically developing children.
… And, Adrian said, Mandy was directing those typically developing children to make sure they let Martin play, too.
Thank you, Wonder Kid. Thank you for looking out for Martin.