May 30, 2013 0 Share

Leader of the Pack


Close-up of author with yellow lab.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

It’s getting late, but I pick up the phone and press Send anyway. I’d promised to check in with my Mom, and I want to keep my word. (Plus, learning what’s actually happening will help me stop coming up with worst-case scenarios.) This week, Mom is caring for Willie by herself, as Dad is on a long-awaited South American surfing trip. When he returns, they’ll switch off; Mom will fly west to spend time with her parents and help them with a forthcoming move. And when Mom picks up, I’m relieved by what I hear. She’s had one particularly challenging afternoon with Willie, but on balance, they’re both all right. Of course, I knew there was every chance that this would be the case. (But there was also every chance that Willie might have a major meltdown and hurt Mom and himself in the process.)  

The afternoon in question, however, could have been much worse. On what was supposed to be a simple walk through the neighborhood, Mom had to deal with a bolting, overly-excited puppy (Chevy) and an increasingly agitated Willie. While trying to hold on to Chevy’s leash, Willie became frustrated, yelling and lashing out at Mom. To top it off, all three were being pursued by the chaos’s catalyst: a bizarrely aggressive deer that followed them for several blocks. Fortunately, neither humans nor animals were harmed in this strange scenario. In fact, Mom found inspiration in it. She’d been watching a dog trainer on TV, and the crisis gave her an opportunity to practice her newfound skills. 

The TV trainer’s mantra is “be the pack leader.” In basic terms, being the pack leader means asserting a calm-yet-confident energy with animals and people. I’ve written before about the importance of my maintaining a low-stress state when Willie is upset. Now, Mom is practicing calm, decisive behavior with both Willie and Chevy. Now, when Chevy gets overly excited or stressed, Mom is teaching Willie how to respond with peaceful, decisive energy. And who knows? Perhaps learning techniques to calm and command Chevy may help my brother to de-escalate his own behavior, in time. 

In turn, hearing Mom’s story gave me the encouragement I needed to practice exuding calm authority in my own life. In the past, I’ve held myself back from pursuing what I want, believing that some imaginary prison bars were real. As a “supersibling,” it’s hard for me to articulate my needs and express “unacceptable” emotions like anger. Intellectually, I know that leading my life in this way is actually a powerful act of service for others. But acting on the knowledge? That’s a whole different story. 

And I’m not the only autism sibling who struggles with the concept of personal authority. In a recent Chicago Tribune piece, “Special Needs for Special Siblings,” writer Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz interviewed Margaret Dickey, 32, a social worker living in South Bend, Indiana who has two autistic brothers. Like Willie, Dickey’s brothers exhibit aggressive and self-injurious behavior. And like me, Dickey learned to hide her true feelings about their challenges. Elejalde-Ruiz writes, “Wanting to be strong for her parents, Dickey felt there was nowhere to direct her anger or sadness, so she kept it in, which sometimes felt like she was wearing a mask. In adulthood it continues to be difficult for her to set boundaries or identify and express her emotions.” Zing. Dickey and I have walked similar roads and learned specific coping mechanisms along the way. When Willie melts down, I’m tempted to shut down and numb out, and I still apologize for things that aren’t my fault. But today, I am choosing to give myself grace. Like Mom and Willie, I’m still learning to lead. And I have to smile as I picture Mom, Willie, and Chevy with a deranged deer pursuing them. 

Sometimes, being “the leader of the pack” means dismantling old beliefs and self-limiting behaviors. And at other times, it means acting with common sense and doing what any animal would do. Sometimes, it’s as simple and instinctive as recognizing danger, and herding your pack homeward.