Natalie Breen's brother, Pat, has autism. She is a passionate autism awareness advocate and with her website, Autism Works, she promotes employment opportunities for adults with autism. Her sense of self and relationship with Pat show the one-of-a-kind experience, and love, that comes with having a sibling on the spectrum.
tell us about yourself, and your brother, pat.
My brother Pat is a guitar player, a storyteller, and a hard worker. He is dangerously honest. He’s tall, he’s handsome. He hears everything and forgets nothing. He’s my brother, my friend, and sometimes I think of him as my "first born." It’s funny, I usually just introduce myself as his sister but I’m starting to realize how important it is that everyone has their own independent identity, unrelated to another person or thing. He is more than just my little brother and I am more than just his big sister and we are both definitely more than Autism. I’m loud, spontaneous, and very observant. I love animals and reading. He’s quiet, likes routine, and not always in sync with other’s emotions. We are both different but we are very alike.
what was it like growing up with pat?
Some words I use to describe growing up with Pat are chaotic, stressful, spontaneous, and fun. It was definitely hard. There were times when I thought it was easier to just completely avoid leaving the house in general and steer clear of the potential melt down. Pat was not very verbal when he was younger, he would communicate what he was thinking using little pictures and diagrams that his therapist drew in a book. I had my own little character, a face with brown hair and a little nose that said “Sister” under it and had Velcro on the back so he could stick it to things to form phrases. We’d make stories out of little books with all his words and pictures and read them over and over again. Like until they fell apart. I’m not sure at that age I understood what was happening. All I knew is that he was different, but different to me wasn’t weird. Everyone was different. My brother was different, but wasn’t everyone? Once I got a little older and more aware of those around me, those feelings changed. I was very sensitive to how people approach not only my brother, but anyone who was “different” and I feel very protective over anyone who cannot protect themselves. Growing up with a brother who has Autism has also helped me prioritize what I value in life. Watching someone struggle with basic life skills that are natural to me reminded me to always appreciate things most people overlook.
your website, autism works, offers resources and support for adults on the spectrum who are seeking employment. how did autism works come to be?
Autism Works aims to address the issue of when young adults with Autism “fall off the cliff,” another way of saying they are no longer eligible for many of the state provided services available up until age 22. When I started my new job last summer, we were tasked with creating a website – I thought the month long project would be far more enjoyable if it was something I was passionate about so I chose to focus on an area I saw a gaping hole. I watched the awkward transition my brother went through and the difficulty he had finding a job despite his immaculate skillset – he is meticulous, trustworthy, analytical, honest – but these skills were not being recognized by possible employers. The website completely took off, it was actually more than I could handle and to be frank I couldn’t handle the volume. We need more people dedicated to the transition phase of life for young adults and making sure everyone is an important part of the community. There needs to be more focus, more brainpower, and more dollars dedicated to this. The economy is suffering by missing out on these workers and they are being undervalued and underappreciated.
might we add: you've raised tens of thousands of dollars for autism research and serve on the greater boston autism speaks committee. what has been your journey with autism awareness; have you faced any challenges along the way?
I got involved with Autism awareness by default. It was something that impacted almost every detail of my life, how could I not get involved? One challenge I have faced is balance. When your life is consumed by Autism – I mean I wake up, eat, sure I go to work or whatever, but I come home and basically my schedule and everything is dictated by my brother – it can be hard and honestly, maybe not healthy, to then spend your spare time devoted to Autism. I would never not be involved because it is important to me, it’s something I am passionate about. But I also need to reel it in sometimes because as I said earlier, everyone needs their own unique identity and hobbies and things that make them, them. Counter to that, I think the voice of siblings is not heard enough. We are the next generation of caretakers, we are the ones who are molded by our intimate experience with Autism into who we are, and we need to express ourselves and be heard.
What advice do you have for siblings of individuals on the spectrum, especially those who hope to find their voice in autism advocacy?
Perfect segue. Do it. I feel almost like a hypocrite because so much of what I say and has been read by hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet are the sob stories that end in a smile. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Autism can be infuriating, it can feel suffocating, it can feel overwhelming. I think the focus needs to be spreading an authentic and honest message. Start small, write it in a journal or a Word document. Write a blog post, comment your thoughts on an article. Your voice matters and it needs to be heard. If we all joined together we could make a huge impact.
what do you imagine your relationship with Pat being like in the future?
Relationships are evolving things. I don’t doubt I will face struggles with my brother but I also know that we will overcome those things together. Pat will likely live with me for the remainder of his life once my parents are gone and that is something I am okay with. To be frank, it’s an unspoken truth. I never sat down and thought “hm… where will he go when he’s older?” I knew he would be a part of my family and my household forever. When I get married, it will be to someone who also loves Pat for who he is. When I buy my first house, it will be with an extra bedroom to be decorated with Beatles and Michael Jackson posters. We will grow closer and I have no doubt, I will love him more everyday.