On Having A Sister With Autism



My sister used to take every single toy we owned and line them up from our bedroom, down the hallway, through the living room, and into the kitchen. She organized them by size, type, color, and things that only made sense to her. I made her angry when I tried to sneak toys away to actually play with them. She yelled at me until I put them back.

I tried to find the sense, but the line of toys escaped my six-year-old understanding.


She used to have a hard time correctly pronouncing her name, and would introduce herself as “Rora”. I took it upon myself to set the record straight. “No, her name is Laura. L-A-U-R-A.”

Almost everybody I knew misspelled my name (C-A-R-R-I-S-A, C-A-R-R-I-S-S-A, K-A-R-I-S-A…). Laura would make lists of our family: MOMSHELLEYDADJEFFSISTERCARISSA. She didn’t and doesn’t believe in spaces.


One night, Laura and I couldn’t fall asleep, so we stayed up all night. She watched cartoons on the old TV in our playroom. I shushed her from behind my books, scared that her laughter would wake our parents. When we crept back into our bedroom at six in the morning, we watched the sun come up from our bunk bed. Our parents didn’t believe we had been awake the whole time when I told them.


I always got the sense that my friends didn’t know how to relate to Laura, growing up. They asked why Laura always talked with such weird voices, and why she talked to herself. Why she did the things she did. I didn’t know half the time. The other half was too complicated to explain, so I gave simple answers. “She likes to play with her imaginary friends a lot.” “She’s just like that.”

My friends were never mean to Laura. They were kind in this way: tolerant and distant and curious.


When she was about 10 years old, Laura started saying that she was a boy. I was almost 12 and didn’t understand. She still called herself Laura and wore pink clothes and acted exactly the same. She still used “she” pronouns–but then, that was the only pronoun she used for anyone at the time.

I used to ask her, “Laura, are you a boy or a girl?”

She would grin and say, “I’m a boy!”

Because I didn’t understand, I said, “Laura, you’re a girl!”

We would go back and forth until I relented. “Okay, okay, you’re a boy.”

She started calling herself a girl again after a couple years.


Laura was the only girl in her high school special ed class. That classroom was not impervious to high school drama. Laura used to ride home from school holding hands with a boy named Suniel. This scandalous love affair ended when Suniel graduated. Laura quickly found herself in a love triangle between two boys named Jacob and Tom. Jacob was (and is) an incredibly gifted artist, and Tom was quiet, but very sweet and a pushover when it came to my sister.

So, yes, basically Laura was a YA heroine. Instead of angsting over which one to choose, however, she decided to keep Jacob as her school boyfriend, and Tom as her summer boyfriend. She and Jacob sneaked hugs (sometimes kisses) on field trips, and she and Tom went to the beach and the movies when school was out.

My mom likes to say that Laura is a strong believer in “loving the one you’re with.” I like to say that Laura is a heartbreaker.


Laura came home from school once and hid every black and green item in the house. I found my trumpet and music folder buried under a pile of laundry. Nobody in the house could wear black or green around Laura anymore. If we did, she would shriek, “EEWWWW, DISGUSTING!” and run away.

We asked her why she hated black and green. She said because they’re disgusting. Fair enough: everybody has colors they don’t particularly like. I avoided the faint glow of Laura’s blindingly pink bedroom for the same reason.

She stopped hating the color black after a few months, but she still loathes the fact that green exists. For years, St. Patrick’s Day was a nightmare (a somewhat hilarious nightmare).

I’ve asked her, “Laura, why do you hate green?”

“Because it’s disgusting!”

“Why do you think it’s disgusting?”

“Because it’s gross!”

Somewhere in that circular logic is the reason why she will eat green Christmas cookies, but won’t touch me when I’m wearing orange gloves with green dots.

(Near Death)

A few years ago, a venomous spider bit Laura’s leg while she was riding her bike in the woods. Laura and our parents told the doctors over and over that it was a spider bite, but it didn’t look like a spider bite by the time they made it to the doctor’s office. It looked more like MRSA.

The doctor said if the infected area spread past a certain point within a few hours, we had to take her to the emergency room. It spread, and they decided to lance it. Laura screamed loudly enough to echo through the walls.

They kept her in the hospital for a week. A surgeon with good sense confirmed that it was a spider bite. Laura spent the week watching anime, Disney movies, and YouTube.
When she sees her ward, she says, “I was in the hospital. The spider bite.”

“That’s right. You were very brave.”

“I was very brave.”


How do you explain death and dying to someone who believes the power of true love and goodness can bring someone to life again?

(When our grandma died, after she was done crying, she said it would be okay. Sailor Moon would use Moon Crystal Magic and heal her.)

We were in a very minor car accident last fall, but it shook her up badly. After we pulled into a parking lot with the other driver, she asked, “Are we dead?”

“No, we’re not dead. We’re fine. Everything’s okay.”

“We’re alive. We’re not dead.”

“That’s right. We’re not dead.”

We grew up surrounded by people who told us about Jesus and Heaven. Laura loves Jesus, but she’s terrified of Heaven.

There is no telling when Laura will be ready to discuss life and death. We could be singing with a song on the radio, and she will turn it off and say, “Grandma McNees is dead. It makes me sad.”

“Yes, she is. It’s okay to be sad, though.”

“It’s okay to be sad?”


“I really miss her.”

“I miss her, too.”

“Why did she die?”

“She had something called Alzheimer’s. It makes you forget things.”


“Yeah. When you get old, you get weak. Your body stops working. And then you die.”

“I’m not dead! I’m alive!”

“Yes, you’re alive. You’re not going to die yet.”


After she graduated from high school, Laura started at something called the Young Adult Program, where she learns living skills and does some fun activities as well. Her favorite class is choir. She has always been a talented singer, and loves the spotlight.

She is especially excited about graduating. The last time she graduated, she insisted that she would receive a trophy. Her teachers bought her a trophy with her name engraved in it. She was so proud and happy.

“I’m going to be 24, 25, 26, and then I’m going to graduate!”

“What are you going to do when you graduate?”

“I’m going to get a new apartment and a new job.”

“Who are you going to live with?”

“Carissa and some girls.”

“What job do you want?”

“Well, I don’t know.”

When I was young, my friends would ask me where Laura would live when she grew up. I would say, “She’ll live with me. You get me, you get her. That’s the deal.” I remembered years where I was the only one who could understand what Laura was saying, where teachers called me out of class to help them with her, where Laura and I read books and sang songs together, and assumed that that was the way it would always be.