April is more than a 30-day salute to rainy forecasts, the Easter bunny and allergies.
It is also Autism Awareness Month, a full 30 days representing the mystery, complexity and diversity behind the cognitive disorder.
But for more than 3.5 million individuals in America, autism is a part of their lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And with that are more than 3.5 million families who dedicate their lives to understanding, supporting and caring for a loved one with autism.
One of those individuals is my 16-year-old brother, Michael. Writing this column has been a struggle, with a lot of backspacing and long stares at a blank page, because there are not enough words, let alone space on the opinions page, for me to adequately express to you all the extraordinary role my brother has played in my life.
The lump in the my throat that gets harder to swallow with every “see you later,” and every smile, laugh and hug he gives me with each “hello, again” remind me of how lucky I am to have Michael as my younger brother and inspiration.
For my parents, my siblings and me, Michael’s happiness is the first thing we think about when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we reflect on before we go to sleep. Sacrifice is an old friend we have become well acquainted with in the Hodorowicz family, but it is something we welcome with open arms and full hearts. My brother has taught us that real wealth in life is love – a richness that is completely unmeasurable. It was not the easiest lesson to learn, but it is one that I am grateful we all enrolled in – even though it wasn’t exactly our choice.
Autism is a six-letter word that is no stranger to our vocabulary. Autism Awareness Month is a step in the right direction toward making it a familiar word and comfortable subject for all of society to adopt. From my own personal experiences, I have a few things that I want to make you aware of this month to remember every day after.
The first thing you should know: autism is not something an individual outgrows.
There are many mysteries and unanswered questions that accompany autism, but one thing I do know is this: autism is not a phase, or like your favorite pair of shorts when you were a kid that you eventually outgrew and had to leave behind with your youth. It is something you grow with. Michael’s behaviors are something we adapt to and accept.
When Michael, my siblings and I were younger, autism used to mean that my brother had to wear the same red shirt to bed every night. No exceptions. No red shirt? Then no shirt at all, and no bed time either, for that matter.
Now it means exactly six pancakes every morning. It means if there is a bunny outside in the backyard, we stake out on the couch together and watch it eat the grass. It means singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” with Michael while he plays piano and we do not stop singing until every animal gets their credit. Yes, that means even zebras, rhinoceroses and sharks.
The second thing you should know: every day may not be easy, but ever day is worth it.
There will be good days and there will be bad days. There will be days where a barefoot Michael will follow a caterpillar in the backyard, both racing against the setting sun in the summer. There will also be days where Michael will get upset and the root of the problem will require more digging than usual. But every day brings us closer to each other and to my younger brother. Every day our patience is tested, our understanding is deepened and our love is magnified.
Some days, I wish I could just have a peek into his brain and see what he is thinking. But that wonder pales in comparison to the warmth I feel in my heart whenever he asks for a “squeeze” (that is a term Michael has coined for a tight embrace followed by a roar that makes lions sound like mice) or when he gestures at one of us to watch him play piano or point out the cat across the street.
The last, but far from least, thing you should know: autism does not define an individual.
The following is one of my favorite quotes I associate with this month and my younger brother: “There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do.”
To put it simply, Michael is a man of few words.
But he is also a wizard when it comes to electronics. He is also a great swimmer with a love for water than could make a fish look like an outcast. He is a high school student. He is a brother, a son and a friend.
Imagine how different the world would be if we considered using those qualities to define him and other individuals who find themselves in the same boat, constantly overlooked.
Do yourself a favor: open up your minds and hearts, care and be aware.
Carole Hodorowicz is the granddaughter of Thomas Horung of Coloma.