Seven Signs You Might be a Supersibling
“Supersibling” is a term made popular by Karen Olsson in a 2007 New York Times feature which refers to siblings of individuals with autism who are particularly responsible and mature for their age. Supersiblings are often perfectionistic high-achievers, deeply devoted to their families and their siblings' care.
1. Your life experiences frequently call to mind these lines of dialogue from the movie "Juno":
Dad: “Hey … where you been?”
Juno: “Oh, just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.”
2. You are kind and compassionate, a fierce advocate for people on the margins. You may be too scared to speak up at times, but you are always loyal to the underdog.
3. You have this solemn rule buried deep within you from early childhood onward: Thou shalt not, under any circumstances, add to your parents' troubles and difficulties. And if thou doest, thou shalt at least feel very, very guilty for doing so.
As adult sibling Graham Seaton says in a 2004 New York Times article, "[As a child], I was so aware I couldn't make a big deal with my family … My parents already had enough on their hands." Likewise, in another 2004 New York Times feature, author Jane Ross notes, “Even when parents give them explicit permission to vent about an autistic sibling, many children choose silence, experts say, one of many ways they may try to protect their overburdened parents.”
4. The sole exception to the aforementioned no-venting, no-making-a-big-deal rule comes when you're under such stress that your (ordinarily strong) sense of self-control snaps. In such cases, you may be astonished to find yourself smashing a guitar, screaming at a stranger, or running away from home.
5. You have a tendency to take responsibility for other people's feelings. If something goes wrong, it's your fault. If something goes well, you take a moment to feel relieved, and then you start preparing for the next thing that could go wrong. You pray the Serenity Prayer because you are prone to forgetting what, exactly, you can and cannot change.
6. You are attuned to your sibling, able to read his or her expressions and moods. Often, adults rely on you to “translate” your sibling's vocalizations. For example, my brother Willie is obsessed with giving incorrect answers, even when he knows the correct response. Several times a day, he'll call out to our parents, “Is the capital of Spain Barcelona?” or, “Is two minus one four?”
The appropriate response to these questions is a gentle, playful one, something like: “Barcelona? I thought it was Istanbul!” or, “Two minus one is … ten?” This gives Willie the chance to deliver a punchline, saying, “Oh, no, I mean Madrid!” or, “No, it's one!” Such exchanges may be confusing to non-family, especially as Willie can become agitated if his questions aren't answered, or if the answer isn't what he expects.
7. You try to predict the future, because you often end up worrying when you sense the presence of overwhelming possibilities before you. For example, you probably know the estimated genetic odds—numbers, percentages, the whole bit—that your children (or your children's children) might be on the spectrum. You think to yourself: So, the odds that my kids would have autism are high … and the odds that I'll be the one caring for my brother/sister on the spectrum in the future are also high. What do I do? What's the right choice? What if I don't have kids and then end up regretting it, or what if I do have them and end up in some kind of untenable situation of constant caregiving?
At times you feel caught between having a “life of your own” and contemplating a life of caring for your sibling. Eventually, though, you realize that these categories are moot. A life of your own means caring for your sibling in some way, and caring for your sibling in the best and truest way also means having a life of your own.