Editor’s Note: The following is an essay written by a young man named Madison, a senior in high school in East Hampton, New York. As part of his senior project, Madison is creating a documentary about Jonny, his stepbrother with autism. We were inspired by Madison’s words and wanted to share them with our readers.
When I first met him, I was small. He was much taller than me. At first, I didn’t know what to expect because of everything other people had told me, but I wasn’t nervous. I approached him and said, “Hello, my name is Madison,” as most people do when first meeting someone. Then I waited for a response, but it never came. His mother eventually instructed him to say his name, which I found to be unusual. He finally replied in a soft voice, “Jon.” I then extended my hand and felt his gentle grasp as he shook mine.
From then on, I would know him as Jonny, and I would watch him grow from an 11-year-old boy to a 25-year-old man. I, too, have grown in that time; the 11-year-old that I once looked up to now looks up to me, smiling and laughing every time I come to visit. Because my stepbrother has nonverbal autism, Jonny’s ability to communicate is very limited. Even though he can’t come straight out and say, “I love you,” his eyes say it. Autism can delay so many abilities that I take for granted, but two emotions that it can’t delay are Jonny’s ability to feel happy and to feel loved by the people in his life.
Today Jonny lives in California with my dad and my stepmother. From 2007 to 2014, I have visited California often for several weeks at a time. Living far away from Jonny, I have come to treasure every moment I spend with him. How Jonny and I share our time hasn’t altered very much over the years. We love to watch Disney movies; I can still sing songs from “Dumbo” and “Jungle Book.” Jonny and I both love to eat; we have spent many hours cooking pasta and chicken parmigiana.
As I have grown older, I have become Jonny’s mentor. This past summer, I spent weeks teaching him how to simply get into a golf cart and relax. As we rode along, I would point out landmarks in the surrounding area. Later, I would ask him questions to see what he had remembered; sometimes he would get it wrong, but I would gently correct him. Eventually, he would respond correctly to my questions about the environment around us, which meant the world to me.
Over the past few years, I have also worked as a Club Excite camp counselor for Jonny and his friends. Many of our camp outings allow this group of adults with special needs to go to places they might not normally visit. I know that these outings have been meaningful to this special group of people, but I have recently come to realize how profound these experiences have been for me and how much I have learned and changed because of them.
This past summer, I spent a week with Jonny in his group home, observing how he lives with and interacts with his friends. I was amazed at how different each of these young men are; even though they are all labeled “autistic,” each person is a unique individual. I spent hours filming this group going about their daily routine; I am using this footage to create a documentary/public service announcement that will help people understand more about autism.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what we do together; what really matters is what Jonny has taught me. Over the years I have known him, Jonny has taught me many life lessons. I have learned that patience really is a virtue and that I should show compassion towards others. Seeing how Jonny lives his life has also helped me be more positive about my own life and the challenges that I face. I don’t know who I would have become without him, but I am certain that having Jonny in my life has helped to shape the person I am today.