The sun beat down on us during an unseasonably hot day in January 2001. My family had just moved from Syracuse, New York, to Washington, D.C. We decided to take a break from unpacking to play soccer in the backyard. My dad and I were positioning the soccer goals, while my mom and 2-year-old younger brother, Leo, were having a snack.
After my dad and I were finished warming up, we invited Leo to join us. Six months before Leo had been diagnosed with autism, a brain disorder that made it difficult for Leo to talk and make friends. The diagnosis of autism has grown more common in the last decade, with one child out of every 100 diagnosed with some form of the disorder.
At the time my brother was diagnosed, I was 4 years old and did not really understand what was wrong with him. I felt confused that he did not play or respond to me. Sometimes Leo just ran away.
In the backyard, I passed the ball to my dad. He kicked the ball back. I turned to Leo and said, “Hey, Leo, you wanna play?” Leo stood on the porch not knowing what to do. I knew he could not run away because the backyard was fenced in. Again I asked Leo if he wanted to play. My mom took his hand and led him onto the grass.
I gently kicked the ball to Leo. Instead of kicking it back, he ran around in circles. His behavior was the same as when we lived in Syracuse. Whenever he was on the porch, he would run around to the front like someone was chasing him.
That was eight years ago. Today, I cannot believe that Leo is the same person. He now plays for his school’s soccer team, the Lowell Comets, and understands the rules of the game. Last year, he scored five goals! He plays and talks to his teammates just like a regular kid. This makes me happy because he is accepted and can make friends. My mom says some children with an autistic disorder never learn to talk or play team sports. She also told me that treatment for autism varies widely, and the type of therapy my brother received may not exist in other countries.
His most memorable moment on the team was last year when he scored the winning goal with 10 seconds remaining. Everyone started cheering and clapping for him. It was the first goal that he had ever scored. On the field, I have seen him blow past everyone on the other team and score a goal. He gives his teammates a high five, and everyone on the team is his friend.
My mom says my brother has recovered from autism. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Even when my brother was going though therapy, I felt unsure that my brother would ever be able to play with me. That made me feel worried and sad.
Leo’s therapy totaled 20 to 40 hours per week over a period of five years. He had occupational therapy two times a week to improve his motor skills. He also saw a psychologist and had speech therapy and behavior modification to help him talk and interact with kids his age.
He attended St. Columba’s nursery school while I was in 1st grade at Janney Elementary. In his first year at St. Columba’s, my mom hired a “shadow,” or assistant, who helped him interact with kids his age. He went to St. Columba’s for three years and then moved to another private school. After three years of therapy, he slowly started to exhibit comprehension of the things I would say to him. Sometimes he would play with me, but it did not usually last very long because he had a short temper.
I am able to communicate with my brother when he is upset better then anyone else in the family. Once when Leo was having a temper tantrum, I pushed past my parents who were unable to calm him down and closed the door. Once I came out, Leo was no longer crying. “My work here is done,” I said.
He enjoyed many things when he was little, spending the most time playing LEGOS, because he liked to create a story and characters. He enjoyed having my mom and me come in and play some of the role of the characters.
But Leo did not take interest in team sports until his third year at Lowell. My mom and dad encouraged him to play. I played team soccer when I was at Janney, and Leo came to some of my games but did not take much of an interest. He first developed an interest in soccer when I would take him out in the backyard and show him how to play. When he first started in the backyard, he could kick the ball but could not control where it went. After some practice, he could hit the net every time. I felt proud to have been able to teach him this skill.
One time when we went over to the house of our babysitter’s boyfriend, we got to meet Ben Olson, a player on the D.C. United soccer team. While we were there, Ben gave Leo a miniature soccer goal and ball. Leo seemed very happy with his gift. He played with it the rest of the time we were there. The gift that Ben gave Leo was nice, but I think the greatest gift of all was all the love and support that helped him through his ordeal. I look forward to going to my brother’s games each and every week, and I will always remember the day when my brother could not even kick the soccer ball, and just ran around in circles.