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Lessons learned from my brother with autism

I heard the unmistakable screams from the driveway. The house shook as the enraged 8-year-old boy slammed his fist into the bedroom door again and again. My dad sat nearby, waiting for him to calm down while also stabilizing the picture frames on the other side of the wall.

I made an enormous mistake by refusing to let Lorenzo, my brother, come along with me to the store.

“I listen to podcasts where they talk about their families and their special needs children, and they make it sound like it is such a wonderful experience for them, how it’s brought them so many blessings,” said Darla Elam, our mother. “I just don’t often feel like the hard, grueling part of it is represented well enough. They don’t represent how hard it is on the parents and on the siblings.”

Lorenzo’s outbursts got so bad that I quit my job earlier this year to stay home and help. He’s homeschooled now after getting kicked out of public school. As his brother, I tried my best to prepare him for life.

We spent hours digging up bricks from around our old chicken coop and piling them together to make a rocky river feature down the backyard. He loved smashing the bricks into small pieces with a sledgehammer. Thankfully, he was able to concentrate while working around the house with me.

Lorenzo’s autism makes him emotionally unstable. He gets hyper-focused on certain things and can’t focus on everything else. He struggles with social connection because of his loud, disobedient and aggressive behavior. On the other side, he also shows his love, thoughtfulness, humor and imagination which helps him to connect with others that many wouldn’t.

I used to take him on wagon rides through our Georgia neighborhood every day. The azaleas were in bloom, and he always chose one to take back for Mom or one of our sisters. On our trips, he always asked a million questions. He loves to ask the obvious, sometimes irritating questions when you’re doing or thinking about something else.

“Do you like having a headache?”

“Is this too loud?”

“Should I stop being so crazy?”

“Is being sick fun?”

If he is hyper-focused on trains for the moment every conversation will come back to trains.

“Can we go on a train trip?”

“We have to plan it, right?”

“Do you like trains?”

“Are trains fast?

On and on he goes. Nothing can distract him from his one-track mind.

“There are a lot of people who believe in the stereotype Asperger’s syndrome type of autism where they are really bright in a specific area or secretly really bright,” Darla Elam said. “Sometimes they think your child is this hidden genius and maybe he’s not being parented right or taught well, and they don’t see that he struggles to even count up to four or five sometimes.”

She talked about her persistent efforts to teach him simple things, such as counting, and how it’s been hard to have any success, explaining his fleeting interest in school. Our father, Nelson Elam, expressed his concern about Lorenzo’s future.

“We have to plan for ‘What if he can’t be self-sufficient?” Nelson Elam said. “We have to figure out a way for him to be taken care of.”

We’re still working on helping him develop consistent interests and skills.

Lorenzo entertains many with the videos and pictures he sends out to seemingly random contacts. He steals my Mom’s phone and captures pictures of everything and everyone, including dozens of selfies. He records videos of himself singing and playing his little cat piano and uploads it to YouTube or sends it out through text, unbeknownst to us.

“Remember the swimming pool?” Mom said as she, my Dad and I laughed out loud reminiscing about Lorenzo. “He took a picture of how he had pooped outside the pool. He took a picture and sent it to people.”

It happened in my sister’s boyfriend’s backyard. We could tell it was him because his foot was in the bottom right corner of the picture.

He sent videos of his songs to family members, deceased friends, church members and random acquaintances. I always laugh when I see a message from mom that seems out of the ordinary.

As a college student taking remote classes from home now, I look forward to those texts.

“Alright, I’m not gonna bother your school now,” Lorenzo said, twisting his fingers together.

I forcefully told him to leave after unsuccessfully attempting to finish my reading assignment for several minutes. I wasn’t expecting to be home once school started — close to him all the time but unable to interact as much because of school demands.

After wandering around in my room for a few minutes, Lorenzo gave me an uncomfortably tight hug and said, “Bye Simon. See you when you’re done doing school.”

Lorenzo Elam leaves a mark on everyone he meets. Though he may be unbearable at times, he is still one of the most affectionate kids I know. This crazy kid makes life hard, but he also makes it really good and I think everyone should meet him.


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