People have so many assumptions about what it means to have a brother with autism, most of which are wrong. I don’t think of myself as having a brother on the spectrum. I just have a brother and he’s amazing because of the way that he sees the world, not in spite of it. And, like any sister would, I’ve always wanted him to have a fulfilling life. I knew at an early age that I was lucky to have Brent:
When we were young, I knew that Brent liked to talk to himself. Soon the other kids in elementary school noticed and were not kind. It broke my heart to hear others whisper about him. In high school, I listened as Brent freaked out at the prospect of leaving his school behind. A few years later I heard my mom’s voice crack as she ran through the list of things—transportation, independent living skills, math courses—that were keeping Brent from becoming the zoologist he so badly wanted to be.
Truthfully, there wasn’t much I could do but watch and be there for my family during those difficult years. Brent and I were on totally different paths. While I worked on my degree at the University of Puget Sound, Brent spent his days stocking shelves and bagging at our local grocery store, but the fast pace and the lack of a set schedule took its toll on him. I watched as my brother floundered trying to find a way to live and work in a world built by and for people who don’t have disabilities.
In 2008, my mom and Brent moved to California. With college off the table and Brent’s job coach offering up few alternatives outside of corralling shopping carts and folding t-shirts in secondhand shops, my mom and Brent worked to get him into an independent living program. They also dusted off an idea they had been kicking around for years – a book of stories and cartoons that translated Brent’s mind—the way that it works through literal, not figurative associations—to the wider world.
Shortly before I left for graduate school, I was able to see Brent’s book published and witness his first speaking engagement to a local parents group. Here I was watching him, as I had for years, but this time I saw something entirely different. Brent was able to express how it feels to be living on the spectrum and not just to my mom and me, to an entire audience. I watched relief on the faces of the parents who had gathered there that night. After watching their own children respond in ways that were confounding, here was this young man on the spectrum—my own brother—shedding a positive and humorous light on living with autism.
There are moments when you are watching and, suddenly, you see. You see the brother you’ve known your whole life, you see his purpose and perhaps even your own.
I knew then and there what I had to do.
Although I was in North Carolina for grad school, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I felt since that first night I saw Brent speak: I want to start a non-profit for young adults with disabilities. I want to help other people find that sense of purpose that I watched Brent find. There was, of course, one small problem, I had no idea how to start a non-profit. By early 2013, however, after Brent’s keynote in front of over 600 people at the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Conference I was convinced: I was starting this organization.
The 4 years since have been a crash course in entrepreneurship and grant applications, curriculum development and workshops. What began as a vague feeling of needing to do something has developed into Celebrate EDU, an organization dedicated to giving self-advocates with disabilities, like Brent, the tools they need to build a productive path forward in the world. For Brent, that path forward was Unintentional Humor® and the trajectory of self-employment my mom helped him find. For self-advocates with disabilities, that path begins with the tools and training in entrepreneurship that we offer at Celebrate EDU—just watch and see.
Written by Jenny Anderson and Christopher Kramaric