Meet Crystal & Sylvia

Crystal is a globetrotting artist, mother, and sister to Sylvia, who is on the autism spectrum. She reflects on autism awareness in the African-American community, her sister's role as her maid of honor, motherhood, and more.

Tell us about yourself, and your sister, Sylvia.

Sylvia and I have had a cordial relationship over the years but not an extremely close one. Partly because of our 4.5 year age difference (me as the older sibling), different interests, and personality. I am one who is very independent, don't need a lot of attention placed upon me, doesn't procrastinate, focuses on detail and am very flexible--yet assertive. Sylvia prefers to go on a whim and is less detailed oriented, needs to be heard and be seen, and has to rely on many people for many things. Envy has always been an issue in our relationship, particularly from me having to internalize the issue because Sylvia is younger and has a learning disability, even though often she knows exactly what she's doing; to Sylvia thinking everything comes easy for me (when I've struggled and worked hard to achieve a given goal).

What was it like growing up with your sister?

It's been very difficult because my family has moved several times cross country and regionally throughout my childhood years. Thus, I've not only been an outsider to a new environment, I've had to tolerate Sylvia's many temper tantrums with few people understanding the circumstances at hand. I've relied in the past on a doll collection as 'friends' and my art/travel interests. Again, since I am very independent, I sought refuge in these activities without anyone feeling 'sorry' for me or sympathizing.

Eye opening moments include a trip to Belize meant to celebrate Sylvia's high school graduation only to decide 5 minutes before leaving to not want to go due to "it being too early in the morning." We've had some good moments as well when we went to Ireland to celebrate a friend's wedding and Sylvia learned to be a little more flexible with the itinerary: if you don't want to miss the flight, you need to move a bit faster. 

How has being the sibling of someone on the autism spectrum impacted your relationships? We hear Sylvia had a special role to play in your wedding.

I've been more mindful of people with different strengths and weaknesses and am also more aware of consequences of 'off' behavior. Common sense and street smart are important to me because I've seen many, including Sylvia, get away with inappropriate behavior yet people enable the behavior as well. I'm also sensitive to other outsiders like myself due to never being part of an in-crowd. I believe in inclusion, yet acknowledging differences.

My wedding had its moments. Sylvia didn't want to help as the maid of honor and take off her fanny pack at the ceremony while complaining of even participating in our limo. I promised my late father, per his request, if I ever got married to allow Sylvia to be my maid of honor. I kept my promise to him. I often internalize to keep the peace and not wanting to hear the confusion in the first place. I made a deal with her: behave like you should and I'll arrange for someone to take you home as soon as the wedding ceremony is over. If not, there will be dire consequences. Sylvia got the message and managed not to mess up my special day and I kept my promise to have a family friend take her home.

After marriage, motherhood, and other transitions in your life, how has your relationship with Sylvia evolved?

It's a very slow process: Sylvia still has a lot to learn about respect and appropriate behavior and that the world doesn't just revolve around her. Thirty five years later and it's still often a struggle between Sylvia and my mother. My mother is getting older and many family events are going on, yet Sylvia hasn't adequately prepared herself to participate in these events since she's "not interested," nor prepared herself for independence when my mother's time comes. My daughter Sydney looks up to Sylvia but at times I have to explain to her that Sylvia is having a moment and needs to be left alone. My daughter has had to learn compassion at a very early age.

What are your thoughts on autism awareness, particularly in the African-American community?

Our community fails to acknowledge and help those who have family members with disabilities, especially ones like autism that may not be 'physical' in nature. I find that we still focus on image and status rather than differences and community involvement. It's very frustrating and since I've moved around, to this day, I have no one who can even relate to what I've gone through with Sylvia. Thus, I often travel abroad and befriend those who are may also be at a disadvantage. 

Might we add: you're a globetrotter and an artist. What inspires your travels and your work?

I've written a book about my travels and am in the process of self publishing. To this day, I have traveled to 54 countries, all seven continents and over 1/2 of the U.S. I feel more comfortable being abroad and hope I can continue seeing new places and meeting new people. My daughter Sydney took after me in her love of traveling. I find that many people in various parts of the world are intrigued by an African American, who either travels solo, with a young child, with 3 generations, or my spouse and wants to learn more about them, and not be stereotyped as 'the ugly American'. We need to talk about each others similarities and differences, not just brush them under the carpet and hope they go away. If you don't address the issue head on, there's only so much dust that will remain hidden.