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Do you have two kids? Ever do the math to figure out the exact day when the younger one would be half the age of the older one? It’s kind of like charting when Mars is closest to Earth. For us, it was December 5, 2014. I didn’t bother to mention it here at the time, but that little moment meant something to me. I could already see R “passing” Dar in so many of his milestones. Part of me loves that, because it seems to stimulate a jealousy in Dar that helps his development.

But the other side is that there’s a constant temptation to measure Dar’s losses by R’s gains. That is, every time R does something new, we’re joyful, the same way you’re joyful when you (and you know who you are) status-update something silly your kid said. We’re also flabbergasted with a side of bitterness: 2-year-olds can do that? We had NO idea.

This weekend, our #2 turns 3. And it seems like a good time to reflect on how our care for R reflects on our care for Dar. You know how the books (and your older friends) tell you to treasure every moment, because they go so fast? Done and done. We literally laugh out loud at every new thing R does – which is at least once a day. So thank you Dar, for teaching us how to fall in love with every single tiny thing your brother does.

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As we learn what ANY kid of ours can do, we work to transfer those skills to Dar, and that does sometimes happen. For example, R has been very interested in cars, trains, books, and certain foods. Seeing this, Dar has become more interested in these things. So that’s good. Could any of the following things be next?

(Let me use a birthday to brag a little about one of my kids…readers here know that I don’t do that very often.)

R knows circle, square, triangle, rectangle, diamond, oval, pentagon, hexagon, octagon – knows them in any context.

R counts down from 10 and up to at least 20. He says “twenty-five” and “thirty-five” when he sees them on signs (and rare moments on my speedometer).

The other day, I had some friends over to watch the Warriors game. Though he wasn’t invited, R went to the nearby room, picked up an adult chair, dragged it into the living room, set it next to me and another adult, and sat in it. I did that laughing-out-loud thing again.

R has a blue ukulele that he calls a guitar, which is fine with me. He puts it on his lap and strums it on the beat. Here are the songs he can sing all the words to while he plays:

Wheels on the Bus

Itsy-Bitsy Spider

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Row Row Your Boat

You Are My Sunshine

Monkeys on the Bed

ABC song

ABC song in Spanish

Old McDonald, and when he plays that he says to me, “and on this farm he had AHH?” waits for me to say “pig” or whatever, and then replies “e-i-e-i-o, with a oink oink there and a oink oink there…”

He also has more than passing familiarity with Hot Potato, The Monkey Song, Conjunction Junction (we watch a lot of Schoolhouse Rock), and I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You (because I decided we needed less Wiggles and more Beatles).

R could probably learn all of the works of Shakespeare by his 4th birthday if we just set them to music. He’s an inveterate singer, dancer, jumper, lover of all things musical.

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Of all the words and phrases R now knows, one of our favorites is “I don’t know.” (We also like “Why not?” instead of “Why?”) To us, it takes intelligence to admit that you don’t know everything. I felt I had to teach him to say “What is that?” but now he says it with relish, and I don’t mind.

We used to count R’s words and verbal milestones (for example, the books say that by the age of 3, he’s supposed to have in/on/under, big/little, is/am/are, -ing, I/me/mine/it/he/she – and he does), but I’m announcing right here, right now that with R, we pretty much can let all that go. This is like finally removing a Sisyphean boulder we’ve been carrying for the last three years. These days, we can just talk to R, and he’ll pretty much understand. So if we don’t want him to cry at night, we say “sweetheart, go to sleep, and when you wake up in the middle of the night, take a sip of this water here, and put yourself back to sleep. You don’t need us to get up for you.” And that often works. We can’t do anything like that with Dar, and we have no idea when we will.

Now, let’s not pretend that R is some kind of perfect little 3-year-old. He doesn’t like the potty. He insists on bottles, not sippy cups. He is very shy with strangers, and not the most social kid at his pre-school. There are times that Dar seems far easier; more tolerant of car rides, better-behaved in restaurants, less vocally demanding.

The main difference between R and his brother is not exactly the autism, but the fact that R wants to learn, wants to imitate, wants to play with us all the time. NBA coaches are right: you can’t teach desire. So far, Dar rarely demonstrates that desire. Yet I see him watching R and me, and I think it makes him engage just a little more with us. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

R and I are on a positive feedback loop; he gives me attention, I give him attention, and we both get a lot of unexpected pleasures out of it. Dar and I are on a negative feedback loop; I give him attention and he (often) doesn’t seem to care. Human nature (and experiments with rats) suggest that I will gravitate toward positive feedback and focus on R over Dar. I see that happening and, as R would say, “I don’t like it.”

Let me give a more concrete example of how R affects my thinking about, and therefore caring for, Dar. Today in therapy, the therapist, while moving to get some tissue, bumped Dar just a little bit, and he fell and hit his head. Instinctively, I picked up Dar and held him. As I was hugging him, two thoughts flashed: Dar didn’t even put his arms in front of him to break his fall, as his brother has been doing for at least a year. Second, I asked Dar “where does it hurt?” as I reflexively do with his brother, but all Dar can do is cry. I flash the same scene every time it happens with R:

“Where does it hurt?”

“Right there!”

“Where?”

He points: “There!”

“Can Daddy kiss it and make it all better?”

With lower lip out: “Yeah.”

I kiss it. “Okay, all better!”

“Thanks, Daddy.”

And then we inevitably move on. With Dar, it’s a lot harder to stop the interminable wailing…or know where exactly he’s hurt. Somehow, this has to change, and somehow, I think R will be part of the change.

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My wife worries about the day R will say “What’s wrong with Dar?” I think he already knows.

Who knows how this will all play out, though we find ourselves guided by the film The Black Balloon, about an autistic boy with a younger, teenage brother who feels trapped between wanting to help and wanting to leave. But even if R never lifts a finger to help his brother, he’s helping us take care of Dar in more ways than he can know. Mostly, he gives us hope for life and the future, and that hopefulness gives us the strength to meet Dar’s daily challenges.

But this week I just want to say Happy Birthday to my beautiful 3-year-old. I love you buddy.

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