Autism should be accepted, not pitied


I love talking about my brothers. They are the kindest, most loving, most giving individuals I have ever known. I love bragging about them, speaking on their attributes, sharing stories of the funny things they’ve done or the loving moments we’ve shared. But, when I share these moments and memories, they are never greeted as I want them to be.

I want to celebrate my brothers and what they mean to me, but the only word people hear is “autistic.” After that, my stories go from charming to tragic, laughter turns to pity and my brothers become caricatures of themselves in the eyes of others.

My twin brother, David, is 20 years old. My younger brother, Jonathan, is 18 years old.

What’s eating Hannah Roach? Absolutely nothing. My brothers are my best friends. The autism in my family is what makes it the wonderful, funny group I love. My family is unique and so are my brothers. So, when I talk about autism, it is the autism I know, which is different than other individuals’ understandings. I’m very lucky that my family is supportive and has the resources needed to care for my brothers, through speech therapy, iPads and of course proper education. This is not the same for every family with autism and I cannot possibly speak for others when I talk about my experiences.

My experiences are not entirely positive. Like everything in life, having two autistic siblings is multi-faceted. On some days, it’s amazing. I know that my brothers are happy, full of joy and surrounded by love. Other days are not so good. My friends can call their brothers and sisters easily and ask about their days. Some days I find myself envious that other siblings can fight with one another. It’s hard to do that with one nonverbal brother and another brother who speaks only when motivated by Cheez-Its. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that this isn’t the worst problem to have.

By far, the hardest part of having autistic siblings is not the could-haves or what-ifs. It is the way I see them being treated, even here on this campus. When my brothers come to visit me at Mount Holyoke (the place my twin refers to as‘Hannah Mount College’), they are stared at regularly. This isn’t that upsetting; my brothers are large, six foot plus males who make loud sounds different from typical speech. They walk differently and behave differently, so I understand the staring. What I don’t understand, however, is the look of pity I see across the faces of those walking past.

When I say my brothers are autistic, the first reply I often get is “I’m sorry.” Don’t be sorry. This isn’t something to be sorry about. It is a fact of both my life and of theirs and it is a fact that I am always proud of. My brothers are autistic, but also smart, charming, loyal, loving and funny. I am never sorry to be their sister, but I am sorry to hear them whispered about, and, when they walk by, to see people move far out of their path. They love Mount Holyoke because they know I’m here, but Mount Holyoke does not always seem to love them.

When Family and Friends weekend comes around in the fall, my parents take turns visiting me and staying at home with the boys. Every year, I hope my entire family will come, so they can meet my friends, see my school and see the place I love. Every year, “it’s too hard.” My parents don’t want my brothers to disturb the other families. They don’t want us to be the loud, different family we are. Every time my twin cries when he realizes he can’t go swimming in Upper Lake, or when my younger brother attempts to steal a Coca Cola from an unsuspecting bystander, the Roach family becomes the focus of unwanted attention on campus. This isn’t due to embarrassment, this isn’t due to shame. It’s due to the sheer exhaustion that my family faces in shrugging off the looks and glares.

I’ve heard restaurants go silent when my twin started to cry over a plate of french fries. I’ve seen people stare, laugh and point when my younger brother peed his pants. Mount Holyoke is a space for me far different than my hometown, because I am not associated with my brothers and with the experiences we’ve had together.

But I want it to be. My brothers are an integral piece of my life — a part of me that I want to share with this campus. They are and always will be the best part of me. And I hope that someday, they can be a part of yours.