It's a funny dichotomy.
Parents of special-needs children are often recognized and lauded for their unflagging service to their children. Yet, the non-disabled siblings of the same families can go unnoticed.
It's tempting to look at the challenges of such a family and conclude that having a sibling with a disability is a damaging burden — one which can marginalize and embitter the brothers or sisters of a child with special needs. We might feel it is a tragedy not only for the child with special needs, but also for the siblings.
It isn't the case, though.
In my family, which includes two boys who have multiple disabilities as well as two typical boys, I've seen the opposite. The same is true in the myriad families I know who have both disabled and non-disabled children.
Siblings of a special-needs kid are the lucky ones, because they grow into people who understand selflessness.
They learn at a tender age to serve and have endless opportunities to offer unending service at home. My eldest son has never known anything different. At age 6, he started washing his own hair in the bath before instinctively reaching over to wash his 4-year-old brother's hair as well. In the car, he buckled his little brother's seatbelt automatically before buckling his own. Now as a middle-schooler, he picks up the toddler when the 10-year-old starts violently rampaging. He calmly talks to the 6-year-old, whose anxiety can spin out of control. He watches over his younger brothers with gentleness.
Siblings like my son often face extremely challenging situations at home, with difficult behaviors and rigid routines. Many times their own needs are set aside as their parents focus on the child who isn't verbal, or is having seizures, or is throwing things across the room.
These kids learn to care for those who can't care for themselves. They understand from experience that the world does not revolve around them, but that they are an integral part of a family that must work together to survive the crucible that is caring for a special-needs child. Perhaps most importantly, such siblings have the ability to see and know the person at the core, not just the disability and its trappings.
While being the brother or sister of a child with special needs isn't easy, it is transformative.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen, an emeritus general authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said of his developmentally disabled brother, "Gary was a childlike person who turned the other cheek and was quick to forgive. He loved and accepted everybody. I think that aside from my parents, this special brother did more during my childhood to shape my outlook on life than anyone else. I grew up knowing that we should love those who are different and help them reach their potential. Because of Gary, I feel no prejudice toward anyone. I learned that I must not judge people, that I should assume that they are doing the best they know how, and that if they are going to do better, it will be because we understand and help them."
My friend Maria recently told me about a phenomenon in her family. When her older children began dating, they would bring their prospective love interests home to meet Lydia, the youngest daughter who has special needs. Only those who passed the "Lydia Test," who understood and accepted their little sister, had a chance at a long-term relationship with one of her siblings, who learned in their youth how to take care of their sister.3 comments on this story
In the ninth chapter of John in the New Testament, Jesus' disciples encounter a blind man. They ask, "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him."
For the brothers and sisters of children with disabilities, the works of God are manifest tangibly, daily as family life presents them with the opportunity to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.
Megan Goates holds undergraduate and master's degrees in English, teaching and writing from Westminster College and Utah State University. She blogs at tooursurvival.com