Eyes Like Lithium

A girl struggles to understand her autistic brother’s demons, real and imagined

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    Anthony Russo / www.russoart.com

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I have seen my brother’s eyes very few times. Eye contact is brief—he tries to escape it whenever possible. Merely glancing at him is an offense. Looking at him intently could result in a tantrum. His tantrums are huge, vocal, physical attacks. He is the unstable element: eyes like lithium. Just look at it and it will explode. What I know I’ve stolen through the years.

I think of the birth I wasn’t alive to witness: My mother is glistening and exhausted beneath the high ceiling of their living room. Strands of her long, dark hair stick to her forehead. She’s delirious with pain. My father has a hand on her round stomach and a hand pressing open a medical book—he’s sweating too, glancing between her face, the book, a clock chiming on the wall. It’s been 36 hours, and still no baby. Too late to find a midwife, too poor to pay for a hospital. I wanted my hands to be the first hands to hold all of you, my father often told us. I wanted you to know the hands that would protect you. 

When my mother finally contracted Micah from her body, he didn’t make a sound. My father wrapped him in blankets and laid him on the bed between them. Micah didn’t cry until she touched him.


Autism is marked by abnormal introversion and egocentricity. Autistic people have an atypical sense of, and response to, fear. My brother is terrified if you approach him unannounced, but might walk into interstate traffic. It is not a personality disorder. It is a developmental disorder with a spectrum of symptoms so varied as to be almost individualistic. If you’ve met one person with autism . . . you’ve met one person with autism. If autism could create photographs, each one would be overexposed.

My mother was pregnant when she met my father. She was early on, so neither of them knew it. Micah was the culmination of a two-year love between my mother and a man named Jamie. He was from a well-off Sacramento family, deep in law and politics. She worked behind the counter of a Dairy Queen while she studied at the university. After Jamie broke up with her, my father said he liked the way she stirred the shakes and asked her out.

8/11/2013 4:19:09 AM

thank you for sharing. autism > (nothing has changed) = (nothing remains the same) > *

don phil
11/16/2011 6:33:02 PM

I have never had the experience of knowing someone with autism. You have given me that as a gift. Many, many thanks.

Paloma Voillot
11/16/2011 5:28:25 PM

Thank you for such a beautiful and powerful story. I love the way you write! Clean, powerful, effective, and poetic... thank you.

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