Same but Different

By Tina Tsironis

Often a gap will develop between someone you thought you knew and the person they have become. A gap that widens at first gradually and subtly, and then all at once like a jet plane flying full throttle into a building.  The sight of my younger brother Steven chasing my mum down our hallway last year, his face fire engine red, pushed the gap from slightly far apart to so extensive you’d have to run a marathon to reach the other side.

Steven was no longer my chubby cheeked, bubbly baby brother. Feverishly advancing towards his target, he was fourteen-years-old, had been diagnosed with autism ten years earlier, and was tall enough that he towered over my petite mother and myself.

If the situation wasn’t scary as hell and deadly serious, I’d have laughed at how in-tune their pounding footsteps were. Like a horde of animals doing the Macarena, almost.

‘Stop it Steven, stop!’

‘What the hell is his problem?’ I yelled.

I was midway through basking in a post-shower, freshly washed hair glory, and typically, someone had to take a hammer to the contentedness, reminding me that everything was not okay.

‘I’m calling dad’, I said, my heart beating so hard that it felt like I’d taken sixty hits to the chest by a champion boxer.

‘He’s at work, he can’t do anything!’ my mum yelled. ‘Go in your room, go!’

I couldn’t do that. I wanted to do that. In what appeared to be one swift, controlled movement, Steven had picked up the large photo of our deceased grandpa, our papou, and launched it at my mum’s head. I tried to push him onto our one-seater leather burgundy couch. Bad idea. He instantly threw himself towards me, teeth bared and aimed right at my leg.

‘Stop it, for fuck’s sake!’

He had come so close to me that I could smell the teddy bear biscuits he had eaten earlier that morning. How could someone who ate bear-shaped snacks be capable of physically attacking his family on a regular basis?

It happened every few days. I knew the drill. I was flat on my butt, scrambling to shuffle away from my brother. I found my way to the kitchen, clutching on to the countertop in hope that it would somehow shield me from what was happening. It was there that I had the perfect view of Steven biting my mum’s thigh like a teething baby hacking hungrily into its father’s fingers. The mark he had left this time was bigger and more grotesque than the others. It looked like someone had screenshotted a photo of a real-life solar eclipse, transposed it onto my mum’s thigh, and used a faded red pen to colour in the middle.

Teenage Steven was a far cry from Baby Steven. How could one possibly reconcile responsive, pre-diagnosis Steven; an amiable baby who would tighten his roly-poly hands into fists and shake them excitedly whenever someone spoke to him, with anxious, withdrawn autistic Steven?

Let’s place the two Stevens, in some of their finest moments, on opposing screens. Screen A and Screen B.

On Screen A we have my brother a few months after he hit the big ‘one’. My mum and aunty had taken him to one of those pop-up photo portrait places at our local shopping centre. Steven was decked out in a sleeveless leather vest, complete with spiky silver studs – so bikie it hurt. An over-enthusiastic photographer was cooing and frantically waving a teddy bear in his face. Did Steven care? No. Was Steven anxious about this? Not even slightly. Did it matter that a crowd of people, mostly middle-aged women, had almost dropped their bags out of sheer excitement, about to melt into piles of mush at the sight of my baby brother? As if. Steven merely giggled and whipped his head from person to person, his bright blue eyes cartoon-like in their happiness.

Let’s take a look at Screen B, shall we?

Here, we have sixteen-year-old me walking into our living room. Steven was seated in his usual spot, sitting against our large burgundy leather couch.

‘Hey Steven’.

No response. His eyes were fixed on the cooking show playing on TV.

Oookay. I rubbed my eyeliner-heavy eyes, walked up to him and knelt down to his level.  It was then that I realised he wasn’t actually staring at the TV. His eyes were boring into the top of the cabinet holding up the TV, with all the intensity of a sexually-charged teenager ogling a Kardashian selfie.


He whipped his head back and moaned loudly.

‘Jesus, okay. Wow.’ What was problem? I just wanted to say hi.

You could probably say that my little brother’s newly withdrawn personality affirmed the quintessential stereotype of the reclusive, socially withdrawn autistic savant: rocking back and forth, shunning any form of contact or communication with other people. At school, even today, he’s not that much more outgoing.

‘How was your weekend, Steven?’ his teacher, Greg, will ask him.

‘Gooood’, Steven will drawl, refusing to meet Greg’s eyes.

‘What did you do?’

Steven’s eyes will crinkle up.

‘Ate chips from KFC’.

He’ll draw out the ‘KFC’ as he draws out every last word of nearly every sentence he speaks, lending his voice a Valley Girl quality.

Evidently, communicating with people can be near torture for him. Dealing with life itself can be harrowing at times. Teenage hormones often seem to multiply and surge forward at an astoundingly speedy rate. I dealt with the confusion, insecurity, acne breakouts, unrequited love-but-really-mere-crushes by drinking a little too much. Steven dealt, and often still deals, by channelling his confusing emotions into an anxiety-driven rage.  Hop into a time machine and transport yourself back to your teenage years. You’re sitting in class, it’s the end of the day and you just want to go home. You’re preoccupied with a bunch of stuff. Why is mum being such a bitch to me? Why am I so goddamn moody lately? Why is my future husband ignoring me?

Imagine trying to navigate those feelings and changes, while also dealing with sensory overload. You’re in class, and someone has turned up an elusive notch and magnified every single sight and smell around you; the ticking clock, chalk scratching across a chalkboard, a pen tapping against a table. The heavy Lynx aftershave sprayed under the armpits of the guy sitting next to you. The salty sweat of another classmate, who clearly forgot his Lynx that day.

Steven, like many autistic people, obviously feels frustrated, anxious and downright disarmed about these changes. Like many teenagers rightfully do. However, Steven lacks the ability to communicate his feelings about these crazy things happening to his mind and body. He can’t vent to his friends about his feelings, because he is unable to sustain the intricate, in-depth conversation that doing so would require. He cannot write about it on Tumblr, because he can’t type, or even write anything other than his name. He cannot even state to his family something as seemingly simple as ‘I’m feeling really crappy right now. Leave me alone.’ If you pay close enough attention, however, you may just come closer to figuring out how an autistic person is feeling.  Steven will show it through the tone of his voice, or the way he shuns eye contact, or yes, sometimes by lashing out physically at his family members.

Often he’ll repeat the same words, in the exact same way, in order to get someone off his back when he’s feeling uncomfortable about not being able to answer a question in a ‘proper’ manner.

I’ll get home and see him sitting in the kitchen staring outside, probably wishing he could be amongst the treasure trove of grass and dirt that to him, feel like the softest, most extravagant satin.

His headphones are glued to his head, his moppy light-brown hair sticking out in tufts.

‘What did you do at school today?’

‘Morning ciiiircle,’ he’ll drawl in that Valley Girl twang, referring to the time he and his classmates have in the morning where they talk about what they did at home the night before.

He’s answered the same way for years.

‘Anything else?’ I’ll say.

Steven will purse his lips into a tiny ‘O’ shape.

‘Play on the plaaayground’.

‘No, but what else?’ I ask.

I know he can answer the question properly. All it will take is some time and some gentle prodding.

But he never strays. He follows the script perfectly, every single time.

‘Steven, I bet there was something else. What else did you do?’

He’ll open his mouth and close it, frowning at me and bowing his head.

‘Played on morning- um, did P.E with Matt.’

‘Oh, that’s so exciting! Did you have fun?’


Echolalia, I think it’s called. Seemingly mindless repetition of spoken words. Steven might never be able to answer my question any differently. He may always stick firmly to his script before sometimes, but not always, pushing himself to reveal something different to me.

I shouldn’t think of the script he sticks to as a way to avoid talking to me properly. What does ‘proper’ mean, exactly? If repeating the same words before allowing me a glimpse of spontaneity eases his discomfort, then is that not the proper way for my brother to communicate with people? We’re not all blessed with the ability to communicate verbally, just as we’re not all blessed with the musical talent to hit a high note like Mariah Carey.

A few days ago, I was sitting opposite my mum, mid-rant about something completely irrelevant. I noticed Steven smiling at me. We made eye contact, he giggled and waved. He wasn’t seated against the almighty leather couch from days passed. That couch is lying in a rubbish compactor somewhere, probably. Our new couch leaves no room for Steven to lean against. He was now lying on our even more tremendous five-seater couch, head peeking out of his mink blanket, mouth curled into a mischievous smile. Later, I put my shoes on and had my bag-slung over my shoulder, and in perfectly fluent Greek he asked me where I was going.

That’s a far cry from the Steven of last year – the chaser, the biter, the thrower.

Sure, just last week, while sick with the flu and battling an almighty cold sore above his lip, he threw our toilet roll holder and dented it as easily as if it were plastic (it was aluminium), but that doesn’t matter. Life is difficult to deal with. It beats us down, it builds us back up, and then it throws a few major spanners in the works once again, reminding us that no, everything is not okay. And maybe that fact in itself is okay. We will overreact to the major storms that life clouds us with. We’ll lash out at the people we love in response, maybe because despite how little we show it, we trust them enough to show them our less-than-pretty sides. Life will change us. Steven changed. Why he ‘became’ autistic doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has had a shaky ride to the most nightmarish of places, before zooming back halfway down into a glacier of relative calmness. The glacier may shatter at times, but Steven, dare I say it, has reached into his being and yanked out a mound of strength to equip himself with during such moments.

Steven may not be the sociable baby that he once was. He is a little awkward, more than slightly unwilling to let people into his mind, but he is still unbelievably warm, smiley, and curious. The gap has narrowed a little bit, and Steven is finding his way back to himself. He’s the same, but different. He’s no longer a chubby baby. Steven has lived an often dramatic, always confusing life since his roly-poly fist-shaking days. Perhaps it was only natural that the gap between Baby Steven and Teenage Steven widened – Steven’s experiences and thought processes have shaped him into the person he is today, and there needs to be room to accommodate the newfound complexity of his psyche. But whether Steven is leaning down into me and hugging me tight, or hurling a Wiggles DVD at my head, he is and always will be my baby brother. That will never change.


Image by Artur Rutkowski