My Special Sister

02/18/2016 - 2:15pm
I’m in awe of the intelligent and reflective young woman my little sister, who is autistic, has become.

A Cause For Celebration: Noa Rubin, on the left, helps celebrate her sister Naomi's bat mitzvah. Naomi is on the right. Courtesy Grettel Cortes

“First you, Ron. Harry! Wait for Hermione!” my sister Naomi barked in a British accent while we waited in line for a waterslide. The other kids tried to go in front of us and she said, “No, sorry, but my wizard friends need to go first.” I apologized to the strangers and waited my turn. Later at the pool, a girl from the waterslide pointed to Naomi and whispered to her mother, “That’s the one who was talking to herself!”

When I was 8, I learned about my 6-year-old sister Naomi’s autism. She couldn’t get eye contact quite right and could hardly verbalize her thoughts. Not knowing how to help or connect with a sibling was confusing and intimidating, but I still played with her. Our games lacked structure: sometimes we just watched our favorite movies such as “Peter Pan” over and over. While my friends played board games and Barbies with their sisters, Naomi and I chased each other, pretended to be dogs and drew all over our faces with our mom’s makeup. I accepted our abnormal games because our relationship itself was unconventional.

With help from therapists who came to our house, Naomi became more like my friends’ siblings. Yet, as she became more similar to me — developing more communication skills — it was harder to be patient. My favorite conversations bored her. She was brutally honest, like when she would meet my classmates and reveal my criticisms of them to their faces. I couldn’t yell at Naomi because then she would never learn. I was forced to tap her gently and say, “Hey, when we meet someone new, we just say ‘nice to meet you,’ even when it isn’t nice.” In more challenging circumstances, like when she suddenly transformed into Helen Keller in an elevator, shutting her eyes and feeling around, I had to say, “Naomi, I love that you are inspired by Helen Keller, but this makes other people uncomfortable, so please just pretend in private.” I had to muster all my willpower not to be ashamed.

There were moments when I couldn’t help calling her names, with not-so-nice words like “stupid.” However, yelling and name-calling made her cry or scream, and I realized that if I condemned her for her imagination, she felt even more compelled to defy social rules. If I wanted to help her, I needed to be sensitive and to help shift her love of history and characters into an appropriate space by showing her books and films, such as “Harry Potter.”

Naomi always cared about the underdog, and consequently so did I. In middle school, I always stood up to the bullies who targeted kids with special needs. For the past three years, I have had the pleasure of combining my desire to care for the special needs community with my passion for Judaism as an aid in a special needs Hebrew school. In any social situation where I see a person with special needs, I always sit and listen to him or her because when people give my sister basic dignity, miracles happen. She led my synagogue in prayer and chanted Torah and haftorah at her bat mitzvah last February. In her speech, she discussed overcoming the challenge of having “a learning difference”; it was beautiful and all witnesses sat in awe, myself included, because my sister became a radiant, reflective and intelligent woman.

Being around Naomi has forced me to be vulnerable. Because I’m not bound by trying to make everyone think that my family is perfect, I am honest about myself and my personal struggles. The humility that I have learned from Naomi is paired with a pride in the triumphs of my family, my friends and in my own successes. Naomi’s achievements teach me to emphasize and enjoy capability, not disability. Most important, Naomi has made me a persistent advocate for justice, especially when a situation seems the most impossible.

author's bio: 
Noa Rubin is a senior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles.