Asperger’s syndrome: How a name brought harmony to my sister's life
Harmony. If the baby was a girl, that’s what we’d call her.
This was back in the early '70s, so everyone probably thought the name was a hippie thing. Really, though, it was just good luck—because my sister did grow up and into a Harmony. A peacemaker. A lover of order. And, like her name, a little different from everyone else.
When we were kids, we never heard about Asperger’s syndrome or the autism spectrum. The only word we had back then was “different.” That’s how I’d explain my sister to people who’d never met her. And if they asked, “Different how?” I’d start with, “She laughs a lot.”
It is still her defining characteristic. My sister totally gets the joke—any joke, every nuance—and her laugh can fill large spaces. Perhaps you’re thinking you know someone like that. You don’t. She’s different.
Blonde jokes. Who’s on First? Barbra Streisand in What’s Up Doc? Jeff Foxworthy. The Church Lady. And every single Mel Brooks movie. You think these things have made you laugh? Maybe they have. But not like they’ve made my sister laugh. She gets as much joy from a joke the 4,000th time as she did the first.
Believe me, she is as delightful as she sounds. But when we were kids, she was teased a lot. Often, she came home worried or crying. Many days, she didn’t want to go to school. She used to tell her tormentors that, if they didn’t leave her alone, her big sister would beat them up. I weighed a menacing 75 pounds at the time.
The word “Asperger’s” would have been very handy back then, I think. More helpful than a skinny older sister. Way better than the flimsy and useless “different.” An explanation. Solid fact.
Asperger’s syndrome: An autism spectrum disorder. People who have it show difficulties in social interaction, as well as repetitive patterns of behavior.
My sister was an adult when she heard the term for the first time, and on the day she did, a chasm filled.
Even now, all these years later, I snarl when I think of the bullies who bothered my sister. I remember their names and faces, and I think, I’m bigger now. I could take them. But true to her name, Harmony doesn’t hold a grudge. She’s just glad to know.
Why she can memorize without effort. Why she organizes her things just so. Why she dislikes the chaos of children but loves being an aunt. Why she can complete any jigsaw puzzle, no matter how many pieces. And, why she always laughs at the joke.
There’s much more information about the autism spectrum today than when we were growing up; of course, my sister has it all memorized. I think she feels like I do: It would have been a luxury to know then what we know now. As a kid, she’d have been relieved to learn that she wasn’t the only, only one. And that her difference had a name. Asperger’s.
I think she would have carried it like a shield.
Heather Heath Chapman is a writer and a mother of two. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.