Juliana, 23, and Michael, 21
I am an autism sibling.
My brother Michael has shaped my life in so many ways. For instance, when my family and I go places, people often stare – my brother sometimes melts down in public, and people seem to think my parents are "bad parents" that "can't control their kid." They just don’t understand.
That’s why I feel education is the first step to inclusion. It’s so important to teach children from a very young age to encourage inclusion and acceptance of others, regardless of their differences.
A child's mind is like a sponge. And books can help them learn.
I was introduced to a children's book named My Brother Otto by the author, Meg Raby, a friend of my community. My Brother Otto is about Piper and Otto Crow, brother and sister. Piper talks about her brother's unique hobbies -- dress-up, yellow pipe cleaners, and spinning.
I like the specific details here. I resonate with the fact that the color of the pipe cleaners matters, more than one would realize.
They talk about their interest in having lemonade stands (the lemonade has to be yellow, not pink). Otto wears the same yellow sweatpants and yellow shirt every day, and he’ll cry if he's given a red or blue shirt -- again a very specific, important detail. This is true in real life -- my brother won't wear pants with certain pockets, and no hoods on shirts or sweatshirts, ever.
On Mondays, Piper and Otto go to the park. Otto has a hard time taking turns, a common issue for some autistic kids. He likes the sensation he feels from spinning and swinging high on the swing. When they eat, Otto always orders the same thing, and specifies yellow lemonade. Again, something I resonate with, as my brother only eats from three food groups: pasta, chicken nuggets, and fried calamari. That's it. (Note: individuals with autism often have some GI issues.)
Otto doesn't talk, and he uses his iPad to order. My brother is verbal, but I am very familiar with the services on iPad to assist individuals to communicate – it’s truly amazing. We are so lucky for these advancements.
Piper and Otto visit the library, and Otto will only sit on the yellow carpet square. Otto plugs his ears while the librarian reads. The Kitty Kat twins tell their mom that Otto wasn't listening. This is interesting, as both children and adults often do judge individuals with special needs, without understanding the full situation.
When Dad returns home he gives Otto a bear hug, something he likes, at bedtime. His parents squeeze his shoulders as he climbs in bed with Piper and snuggles under her stuffed animals. All this, the pressure, he likes. On the last page Piper reminds us that Otto sometimes acts differently, but he is just a crow who likes to play, learn, have friends, and be loved -- just like her. Just like all of us. This is my favorite part and the main lesson.
Here’s a little about me:
I created an interactive web app, Making Authentic Friendships, that enables children and adults with special needs to make friends based on their age, diagnosis, interests, and geographic location. It is inspired by my brother, Michael, who has autism and ADHD. It is called Making Authentic Friendships, because MAF are my brother's initials.
We take you through a signup process, and in the chat, there are built-in conversation prompts to help make and keep conversation. The more you use the web app, the more coins you earn to be used to buy things for your avatar.
I have built a large social media community around special needs families and services. The idea of inclusion is so very important to me.
Individuals with special needs are often misunderstood. Apps such as mine can hopefully help them connect, and feel less alone. And children’s books can all of us better understand those who may seem different. Books and stories can shed light into what the life of an autistic person, a sibling, or a whole autism family looks like -- and help us realize that underneath all our differences, we’re all simply human.
Juliana Fetherman is founder and CEO of Making Authentic Friendships LLC, an interactive web app that enables children and adults with special needs to make friends based on age, diagnosis, interests and geographic location. MAF are also her brother's initials. Her brother Michael is 21, has autism and ADHD, and inspired this initiative. You can read more about Juliana and her work for the disabled community in Forbes Magazine.