I’m the older sister in my family. I have a younger sister, who I basically raised. I’m mature, responsible, and able to take care of myself. But I’m not a typical older sibling. Typically, older siblings push boundaries. They try new things. They’re the ones who figure out how to do stuff. The younger sibling learns by watching them, and doing what they do. They watch as their older siblings try things, then they follow. They watch and learn. This is obviously a very broad brush I’m painting with, but it’s a trend that has a fair amount of truth to it… it just kind of makes sense, based on the tools available to us growing up.
But here’s the thing. I am, maturity wise, life-skills wise, age-wise, the older sibling. But I’m autistic, and socially, I’m not the older sibling – I’m much more like the quintessential little sibling. I need a big sibling to show me what to do. I’ve always been an observer, a mimicker Nothing socially comes naturally to me, so instead, I watch and I see what other people do. What works, what doesn’t, and how each interaction happens. I watch enough to build up a database of understanding, then I try it myself. This means that I almost never am able to jump feet-first (or head-first) into a new social situation. I need a guide. Someone who I can copy until I get enough data to act for myself. I need an older sibling.
The idea that I am more of a “younger sibling” in this regard than a typical “older sibling” is not new to me. I first overheard a family friend tell my mom that “E is so much like a younger sibling – she’s such an observer.” We were at one of those awful parties (their house, not mine, happily), and there were tons of kids over all playing in the basement. I might’ve been 8 years old. Ironically, I didn’t take offense at the time. I thought it was interesting – they had a really good point, after all… I’d always wanted an older sister, a role model to watch and learn from. I might’ve done better if I’d had that. Or maybe not. But I do find the concept of how we learn social concepts to be fascinating.
At school, I sort of had a big sister – my best friend, J, was a year older than me, and a grade above. She showed me how to act, how to communicate, how to be. I’ve always had friends a bit older, and I like it that way. I had wonderful “older sister-like” female mentors in the grad students and post-docs I’ve worked with in my lab, who not only showed me science-related things, but who also took me shopping, helped me through lab parties, and included me where others did not. They made sure I was ok when I was injured, and they genuinely cared about helping me find my way in the world. There are other wonderful people who have helped me, too – a roommate from college, and some friends who I met through my “secret life”. Each, in their way, helps me to grow and function better. They teach me how to go out to the movies, how to order at a late-night food place, how to bake, how to hang out, how to interact with friends. They take me places I would never be able to go on my own, and show me how to do it myself. They invite me to do things, and then bend over backwards to make it something I can do. They teach me how to be a real friend. As I get older, I hope I continue to find these wonderful people who can help me figure out life, or at least, bits and pieces of it. They are truly amazing, lovely people, and more like family to me than my own in many ways.
Anyway, moral of the story: I have been blessed to have had some wonderful “older-sibling”-like female mentors in my life, who have taught me how to survive in this world. And I’m grateful for every single one of them. Sometimes the world does smile on me.