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The Sibling Bond in Autism: The Story of Nicholas and Davis

Marina Sarris

Date Published: April 28, 2022

The bond with our siblings – our first playmates and defenders – is often one of our longest and strongest. These relationships are complicated: we argue, get jealous, and compete for parents’ attention.

Autism can dramatically change this sibling connection. Children on the spectrum often need more attention from parents. They may play and communicate differently, or have meltdowns. How does this affect their brothers and sisters?

That question led a family in the SPARK autism research study to create a children’s book about autism and siblings. Teisha N. Glover, and son, Nicholas, 16, authored “Davis Speaks: A Brother with Autism” about Nicholas and his brother, Davis, who has autism.1 The book describes Davis’ autism journey through the eyes of Nicholas.

Autism researchers are focusing more on sibling relationships. “We definitely need to know more, and provide support and understanding to siblings, who can have a positive impact on the lives of people in their family with autism,” says researcher Alycia Halladay, Ph.D.

Halladay is the mother of twins, one of whom has autism. Halladay and Samantha Els, who has a brother with autism, will discuss siblings in a SPARK webinar on May 18. Els, the daughter of pro golfer Ernie Els, co-founded Sam’s Sibs Stick Together to provide support and resources for siblings.

The sibling bond is important. “It takes longer to develop, but the relationship is longer lasting, and once you understand each other, you understand each other,” Nicholas Glover says. “There are not as many bumps as your average sibling relationship has.”

Becoming a Big Brother

Nicholas was 6 when his brother, Davis, was born to parents Teisha and Robert Glover. Nicholas was excited to do the things that big brothers do, such as play catch, run, and ride bikes with Davis.

But Davis seemed to be on his own path. He did not smile, wave, or talk like others his age. At first, his speech delay did not seem that unusual to the Glovers. Nicholas himself had been slow to speak, but once he did, he became a “chatterbox,” his mother says.

Davis began speech therapy and preschool, but he did not catch up the way his brother had. When he was 3, Teisha Glover completed a developmental checklist for Davis at his doctor’s office. When the pediatrician looked it over with her, he said, “I’m pretty sure you know by looking at this developmental milestone checklist that it’s possible Davis has autism.”

“No, it wasn’t my first thought,” Teisha recalled. Developmental delay, yes, but autism?

She put Davis on a long waiting list to see a developmental specialist at East Carolina University in North Carolina, where the family lives. There, Davis was diagnosed with autism when he was 4. That same day, while visiting the specialist’s office and the Family Autism Center next door, Teisha learned about the SPARK study. She believed SPARK could be a resource for her.

The Glovers contributed saliva samples for DNA analysis by SPARK. Researchers at SPARK are looking to uncover more genes that cause autism. “I wanted to be part of the research study, to learn more about autism and the role it plays in our family’s life and genetic makeup,” Teisha explains.

The Sensory and Social Challenges of Autism

Like many children with autism, Davis struggled with a sensory system that was easily overwhelmed by bright lights, noise, and certain textures. When he was younger, he would have meltdowns – episodes of crying, yelling, or kicking – when his senses were overloaded. “Every single time we went in Walmart, he would have a meltdown, just like clockwork, as soon as we crossed the threshold,” his mother recalls. She would hold him and calm him, while sometimes dealing with the cold stares or unwelcome comments of strangers.

These public episodes affected Nicholas, too. He and his mother included a description of a meltdown in “Davis Speaks: A Brother with Autism,” which they published in 2020, when Nicholas was 14 and Davis was 8.

The Idea for “Davis Speaks”

Teisha Glover had dreamed about creating a children’s book for years. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, she longed to read books with Black characters, like her. Years later, as an elementary school teacher, she still did not find many books with African American characters in them. During the early pandemic lockdown of 2020, she decided it was time to create such a book. Why not write a children’s book about autism, featuring her two African American sons and their bond?

Nicholas eagerly signed on. They hired an illustrator who drew the scenes involving the brothers, their parents, a doctor, and autism specialists, all of whom are Black in the book. She sent the illustrator careful descriptions and pictures, including examples of different African American hairstyles, so they too could be represented.

In a central scene in the book, Davis has a meltdown in a grocery store. Nicholas knew that Davis could not control his meltdown. He still felt embarrassed by the way shoppers stared and pointed, “as if he was being bad,” the book says. “Couldn’t they see that his brother was in pain? Nicholas hugged Davis closely and felt his heart beat. ‘Breathe. Breathe. Breathe, little brother. You’re safe with me.'”1

A Brother’s Worry

Nicholas hopes that the book will help improve the public’s understanding of autism. He worries about how his brother may be perceived when he is older, especially by some police officers and others who are unfamiliar with autism. Some people on the spectrum have attracted police attention when their behaviors were misinterpreted. Some have been hurt or killed when they did not understand or respond to police commands. Young Black people with disabilities are more likely to be arrested than others, according to research.2

“That’s always a fear that I have whenever Davis is somewhere. We always try to keep Davis near us and always get scared when he wanders off. We never know how others will react,” he says. Nicholas plans to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in 2023.

Although just a child, Davis’ behavior has upset people before. A neighbor told the family that Davis could not visit anymore because he did not follow directions and behave the way the neighbor expected. To complicate matters, Davis has a speech delay, so he does not express himself the way other 10-year-olds do.

“All Your Special Ways”

Speech is a both a challenge and a strength for Davis, Teisha says. “I know that it’s a challenge to him to even form a sentence,” she says, “but whenever he says anything, he’s being mindful of what comes out of mouth. It’s always sincere and heartfelt.”

Davis likes to say inspirational phrases he learned at the nondenominational church that the family attends. For example, when they visit his grandmother, who lives in a building for retirees, he will approach the residents and say, “Give God the glory. God has blessed you. He will do amazing things for you,” Nicholas says. “It moves them to tears. They don’t expect to hear that from a 10-year-old.”

Davis also tries to encourage his teachers, his mother says. His social studies teacher was giving a lecture one day, when he called out, “I see you. Go ahead and keep on teaching. You’re doing a good job!” She laughs as she tells the story, which she heard from a teacher during a special education meeting. “The type of church we attend is a call-and-response. When the preacher is preaching, the people in the audience say, ‘Go ahead and preach. You’re doing a good job.’ So when he’s in class, he thinks he’s motivating his teacher. But in a class of 20-some students, it’s actually a bit of a distraction.”

The Glovers focus on Davis’ strengths and the love they share. Their book sums it up in one sentence: “Thinking of his talents compelled Nicholas to say, “I love you Davis, and all your special ways.”1

Interested in joining SPARK? Here’s what you should know.

Photo provided by the Glovers.

Resources

References

  1. Glover T.N. and N. Glover Davis speaks: A brother with autism. Exceeding Abundance Books (2020)
  2. McCauley E.J. Am. J. Public Health 107, 1977-1981 (2017) PubMed