The Time(s) I Used my Autistic Brother to Get Into College: An Essay Critique


While I was home with my family over the holidays a lot of things happened that made me feel like a 28-year-old child. Being infantilized seems to be a vital part of every holiday experience. My parents just simplified their lives by selling their big house and moving into a condo in a 55+ community along with my brother who is an autistic adult. I don’t know how they are allowed to live in that condo complex because they are 52 and 53. My brother, Nick, is 23. Whatever.

The point is, while I was hanging out on the couch, my dad dropped an accordion file folder labeled “Sara” on my lap. “Go through this ‘Sara memorabilia,’” he said.  “I’m shredding stuff.” My dad will keep a car for 20+ years, however he sees no value in holding onto membership cards to the National Honor Society. My mom has kept pristine records of my life on paper in hopes I’ll pass them onto my non-existent children, who will pass them onto their maybe children. I don’t know when report cards became heirlooms, but I like her optimism.

Of the many honor roll certificates and drama club playbills—dork alert!—I came across my college entrance essay. I wrote it my senior year in high school for early decision entry to my state school. The title of it, simply and not creatively is “Life with Nick.” And it is not good.

Growing up with an autistic sibling really makes your teenage years abnormal in the way that your only goal is to fly under the radar by doing super-well in school, saying no to all drugs, and abstaining from sex. All of this in an effort to avoid causing your already stressed-out parents any undue pain. I remember myself as an obedient, unselfish teen, but in retrospect, I selfishly used my disabled brother as leverage to get into school.

Here are some excerpts from the essay that not only got me into school, but also, incredibly, got me a scholarship. I believe the idea of the essay was to “write about a topic that impacted your life.” Though sibling experiences are totally impacting, it’s apparent my 17-year-old self had just begun to process how.

Intro paragraph: “I never thought having a brother would have such an unbelievable impact on my life. My brother is no ordinary sibling. He is Nick. And he has autism.”

Why is everything so tragic when you are 17? I’m going to bring back that juvenile use of intense punctuation to my writing. Right. Now.

Paragraph 2: “Autism is a developmental disorder with which people are not very familiar. (editor’s note: not true.) Essentially, autistic people have problems communicating and may seem to be in their own world. It is hard to characterize autism because of its varying degrees and severity. Nick is severely autistic, and he has some very unique behaviors, (editor’s note: “very unique” means nothing) but I could never want him any other way.”

Severely. Autistic. There’s my hook. Also, let me explain autism in two essential sentences.

Paragraph 6: “…Sometimes Nick would demonstrate odd behavior. If he leaned into a stranger’s face and started making a low gutteral (sic) sound while we were in the supermarket, my mother would act like it was nothing out of the ordinary and would simply apologize and get Nick back on track.”

Low guttural noises in the supermarket=high-impact life experience. Is Nick applying to school or am I? WTF?

Paragraph 7: “Two years ago, my family moved out to Delaware from Missouri. Nick was not getting the attention and education he deserved in the special schools in St. Louis so my mom home-schooled him until we found the right program for him. We found it in Delaware…We moved a week after my sixteenth birthday.”

Sixteenth birthday. Shattered. Let me into school.

Closing paragraph: “Nick has been one of my greatest teachers, and I doubt he even knows it. I cannot be sure if he understands the concept of learning from one another as social interaction is difficult for him to grasp. I suppose that is the irony of it all. We can all learn from one another and impact each other more than we know. That’s the beauty of being human.

That’s right. I had just discovered “the beauty of being human.” Now you know.

The actual irony lies in this. Fast-forward to now, and I’m applying to grad school to be a school counselor.  Once again, Nick popped up in my statement of purpose essay. Apparently, I can’t exemplify my academic curiosity without mentioning my experience with autism. If I do become a school counselor, I’ll encourage teens to write better college application essays.

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