Alex leans against the couch in his classic Lionel Richie pose, leaning on his side with one leg bent at the knee sticking out into the air and watches as his sister, junior Maddy Pigeon, leads a stranger through their front door and escorts her to the couch Alex is laying on. Alex plays with the buttons on his Hawaiian shirt for a while before beginning to push himself up from the sinking couch cushion he broke last year. Alex makes eye contact with the new person in the room who’s chatting with his sister and says “Hi there!”
“He is just like any other teenage boy,” Maddy said. “He just does things in a very autistic way.”
Alex is 16. When he was three, he was diagnosed with severe autism and mental retardation. Autism is a developmental disorder that hinders social and communication skills. Alex’s autism not only affects him; it has permanently altered Maddy’s life.
Maddy can remember in grade school when kids at recess would run away because they had heard there was something wrong with her brother and were afraid they might catch it. Even adults at times react poorly to Alex’s condition.
Once, at Winstead’s, when Maddy took Alex out to dinner, a man sitting at the table nearby lashed out at Alex when Alex ran up and touched the side of the man’s plate. After Maddy explained to the man that Alex was autistic and meant no harm, the man proceeded to scold her for ever bringing someone “like him” out in the first place.
Maddy took her glass of water from the table and dumped it over the man’s food.
Maddy thinks people her age are more understanding and empathetic of people with autism. When she tells people now that her brother is autistic, they have a better grasp of what that means and what it entails. All of Maddy’s friends know Alex and enjoy being around him. Granted, it is not hard to get along with Alex.
Unlike many autistic people who are very introverted, Alex is extremely social. He loves greeting people and he eagerly seeks out eye contact.
Recently, while in BCBG waiting for Maddy to find her perfect WPA shoes, Alex sat in a chair squeezing a stuffed ostrich he had brought along. When a man walked by, Alex extended the ostrich to him with both hands. The man took the bird with a mix of confusion and gratitude, apparently recognizing Alex’s condition. The man held the bird for a while then tried to return it to Alex. Alex refused the offer and sat smiling up at the man watching him hold the ostrich.
“It is like his token of appreciation towards people,” Maddy said.
Despite his sweet disposition, his lack of understanding of behavioral norms leads him to break things without remorse. During the summer, Alex’s mother let him sit in their parked minivan and pretend to drive while she did yard work. Later, she discovered that Alex had broken off both the turn signal and the gear shift.
Alex’s tendency to break things causes his family to refer to him as the “household terrorist,” but he has never struck a family member. At times, though, he turns his strength on himself.
Out of confusion and frustration caused by being unable to understand the world around him, Alex hits himself.
His hitting himself has caused a slight depression on his forehead the size an egg.
One night while Maddy was watching him, Alex began beating himself on the head in a fit of frustration. Maddy tried all she could to stop him, but nothing was working. Finally, she ran to her kitchen to find a roll of Gaff tape and two oven mitts. Maddy grabbed his arms and taped the mitts onto his hands to protect him.
Maddy is used to taking care of Alex and feels like she really plays a sort of secondary-mother role in his life. She knows that whatever he is doing takes priority over what she is doing. Maddy has been there for him to teach him the things his parents couldn’t, like how to interact with his peers.
“I feel like I have already gone through the process of raising a child,” Maddy said.
And she isn’t finished. For the rest of her life, Maddy will assume the task of being in charge of her brother: making sure he has a safe place to live, being there when he asks for something and making sure he is alright. No matter where she is in her life, she will always have to be there for him.
“For the rest of my life, I am going to have to make sure he is clothed,” Maddy said.
Having an autistic brother to take care of has matured Maddy beyond her years. Maddy remembers being in middle school and having the personality of a 25-year-old when she was at home.
“Whereas he is the eternal two-year-old, I had to mature quickly because I had no other choice,” Maddy said.
Maddy’s maturity has helped her to understand and accept people’s different reactions toward her brother.
Maddy gets pity from a lot of peers when she first tells them about her brother, but she knows that they just don’t know any other way to react. She understands that their reactions are human nature.
“They are teenagers, they don’t even understand struggles in their own life,” Maddy said. “How are they supposed to understand the struggles of a sister with an autistic brother?”
While Maddy’s mom considers the word ‘retarded’ the R-word, just as offensive as the N-word, it doesn’t bother
Maddy in everyday conversation–as long as it isn’t directed toward anyone with special needs.
Maddy is very religious, and believes that God brought Alex into her life because she and her family were the best people for him. Maddy looks at Alex as a blessing that has helped her to understand the people and the world around her.
“God created Alex because he is the perfect Alex Pigeon,” Maddy said.
Even though Maddy is accepting of her brother, that doesn’t mean there aren’t times where he makes her nervous. Earlier this year Maddy’s parents brought Alex to watch Maddy perform in “Machinal,” an intense suspenseful drama put on by East’s theater department.
“I was so worried that during that dead silence at the end, Alex was just going to yell, ‘Hi there!’” Maddy said.
Often, the recipients of Alex’s exuberant “Hi there!” are pretty women. Once, while stopped at a light on Mission Road, Alex turned and looked at the car next to him to see a good-looking girl staring back at him. When the light turned green and Alex’s dad began to accelerate, the girl in the car over accelerated at the same rate to keep eye contact with Alex.
“He is a complete ladies’ boy,” Maddy said.
Maddy can see the true teenage boy in Alex: the way he acts around the house and his prominent mannerisms remind her of any other teenager.
“I can see the ‘bro’ in him,” Maddy said.
While at times Alex may seem like an ordinary teenager, the truth is that he is not. Due to his autism, there are many things in life Alex will never have.
“I will never be an aunt,” Maddy says. “I will never see my brother have children.”
But there is one thing Alex won’t miss out on: Maddy is planning on taking Alex to her senior prom.
“I think he’ll look smashing in a tux,” Maddy said.