What would your shirt say?

For my son, language is a slippery thing. He’s eight, and on the autism spectrum, and takes nearly everything very literally. Because of that, in our family, we’ve learned to tailor what we say. For example, we would never say, “Television rots your brain” because we know that would result in a very concerned child waking us up at two in the morning in order to check his brain for potential signs of rot.

(So, maybe we have said that before, and that did happen. But we haven’t said it since, I swear.)

Our son’s difficulty with language means his way of expressing himself is unique, and, to us, often beautiful. There is a clarity in his descriptions, unmarred by any flights of fancy, pared down to the absolute essentials, and distilled. For me, as a writer, and one who purely enjoys the occasional overwrought passage, dripping with bonus-point adjectives, watching the way my son develops his voice has been fascinating. I am often envious at his ability to capture a feeling or sentiment so perfectly.

“Mom, don’t take any more pictures. I feel like I’m on a billboard,” he tells me.

Since he was three, he’s struggled with shirts that have writing on them. One, it throws him for a serious loop when people ask him, “What does your shirt say?” because, as he will tell you, “Shirts don’t talk.” Now that he’s bigger, people don’t typically ask him that, but what they will do is sometimes read his shirt aloud, and then ask him about it…which makes him feel like he’s on a billboard.

The solution is pretty simple — I just don’t buy him shirts that say anything, for the most part.

The other day, in an effort to save a little time, I asked my son to go pick out some clothes and get dressed for school. When your child’s wardrobe consists of 3 pairs of jeans and an endless supply of solid-colored shirts, it’s pretty easy.

He came back from his room wearing a t-shirt that read “Best big brother ever.” He’s gotten several of those shirts, with the arrival of his only sibling last May.

“Son, people are going to ask you about your shirt,” I said.

“I know,” he replied. “But I won’t mind.”

“How do you figure?” I asked.

“Because ‘brother’ is my favorite word,” he replied. ‘I’m a good brother. I don’t mind talking about it. I can tell others how to be a good brother.”

I hugged him and sent him on to school, but his words, as they so often do, stayed with me.

He is patient with his sister. He never grows frustrated with her crying, or needing my attention. He is her teacher, too — when I told him we would have to teach her everything, he immediately sat down and began telling her about the dangers of periodontal disease. (Again, it’s that “literal” thing.) He is kind, and loving, and protective. He draws out “plans” to convert the house to solar power, because he wants to get rid of all the cords — he’s afraid she might chew on them. He is, in some way or another, always concerned about his sister’s well-being. That’s what being a brother means to him. That’s what it should mean to all of us.

We are all supposed to be brothers and sisters. But too often lately, it seems like we don’t remember it. Sometimes, we are too busy to sit down and teach. Sometimes, we are too angry to be kind. Sometimes, we are too bitter to want to protect.

But what if we try to make “brother” our favorite word? What if we loved our identity as brother and sister so much that it enabled us to be brave enough to step outside of our comfort zone…whether that means wearing a shirt with words that makes us feel like we are on a billboard, or volunteering at a local charity, or listening with an  open heart and mind to someone whose views differ from our own?

What a radical concept.

For my son, in this stage of his life, the word “brother” is his favorite. He feels it defines him. He’s been there, is doing that, and has the literal shirt. And he’s proud to wear it, because “brother” is his favorite word.

If you had to wear a shirt with your word on it, what would that word be?

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