Growing Up with A Special Needs Brother

special needs brother

How My Brother Inspires Me

Gathering my things as I head out of the office, I comment, “I’m off to pick up my brother from the light rail.”

My coworker shoots me a sideways glance “That sucks,” she says, then pauses. “I thought you said your brother was older than you. He doesn’t drive?”


“And you have to pick him up every day?”

“Well, yes, and no. Yes, every day. But no, I don’t have to.”

John, my two-years-older brother, has Down Syndrome. The reactions to that fact have been hugely varied. I have a Great-Uncle who, when John was born, voiced his opinion that John should be institutionalized as that was the only thing to be done with “kids like that.”

Contrasting my great-uncle, people who meet John before they meet me say, “You’re John’s sister! It’s so nice to meet you. He talks about you all the time. You are so lucky to have him around! You know, John always calls you ‘my beautiful sister Meghan.’ Isn’t that the sweetest thing ever?”

Those who know me well will occasionally get up the nerve to ask me the tough question: Was it hard growing up with John in the house?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is, “Well, there were some differences…” John required a lot of Mom and Dad’s attention when we were young, but I never felt neglected. There were some challenges that faced my parents – finding the best programs for John, helping him learn motor skills that come naturally to most children, learning how to communicate with him – but for me, all these things were normal, because John had been there my entire life, and it was all I had ever known.

Growing up, I had friends who would tell me about horrible fights and strained relationships with their siblings. I had a friend whose brother screamed at her all the time, yelling that he hated her. Hearing about that was the first time that I realized how different my relationship with John was from the “normal” brother/sister dynamic. When I got home from my friend’s house that evening, John met me at the door with a smile, a jubilant “Meghan!” and a gigantic hug.

“Hey, J-Man, how was your day?”

He grinned as he told me about school, the friends he saw and the beautiful weather. Then he gave me another hug. “I love you, Meghan,” he said with the slight hum that creeps into his voice when he’s feeling content.

“I love you, too, J-Man.”

John has taught me so much about positivity and dedication. He has an almost unnerving ability to state a goal and achieve it, no matter how unlikely it seems.

When John was in seventh grade, while he and my parents were prepping for John’s IEP meeting, he said, “I don’t want to take all Special Ed classes anymore.” With Mom and Dad’s help, John lobbied the teachers and principals, and by his senior year in high school, he was taking mostly normal classes with the help of an aide and only a small number of special ed classes.

The next occasion was when John saw the hubbub around Homecoming during his freshman year of high school. He turned to Mom and declared, “I want to be Homecoming King!” He had a giant smile on his face as if he could envision the whole thing.

Mom and I glanced at each other, thinking we had to find a way to let him down easy. “John, I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Mom said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Fast-forward three years: My friend nominated John for Homecoming King. John came home with a card from the student council saying that he had been nominated and wishing him the best of luck. He was beside himself. “I’m going to be Homecoming King!” he buzzed.

When I found who was responsible for this catastrophe-in-the-making, I cornered my friend and said in the calmest voice I could manage, “I will kill you if he doesn’t win.”

She started to laugh.

“No – Seriously. If he doesn’t win, you will have gotten his hopes up for nothing! He won’t understand, and he will be so hurt…”

She cut me off. “He’ll win.”

I met her confidence with a skeptical look.

“Just watch,” she smiled, “He’ll win.”

Every few days for the next two weeks, the student council had runoffs to narrow the field of royalty contenders, and John would bring home another card saying, “You’re still in the running for Homecoming King! Good luck!”

I hated those cards with a fiery passion. Every one of them got his hopes up. John walked around school with a joie de vivre that I hadn’t seen from him before, which was really something coming from ever-smiling John. I dreaded the day that the cards would stop coming. Or worse – perhaps a consolation note would be delivered to him, a keepsake of his failure to make the cut.

But the consolation note never came. Eventually, John was one of the top four contenders. The local news had been alerted. There were reporters and cameramen at the rally and covering the parade. Mom and Dad even took the day off to come see the festivities. At the rally, the royalty nominees were announced one by one.

“Danny Hochstetler!”

[Read: Maria Shriver’s Kim Kardashian’s #BreakTheInternet Photos Got Me Thinking]

Polite applause followed Danny’s name, as it did for Todd White and Stephen Wright.

“And John Maste—“

We couldn’t hear the last part because the gym had erupted into screams and cheers and applause. For a second, I worried – loud noises scare John – but out of the doors he charged, with his signature smile and his eyes alight. The cheers redoubled as he stepped up to the platform next to the other contenders. The other boys put their arms around John’s shoulders, and everyone smiled as cameras flashed and tapes rolled. It was only after numerous attempts to restore order that the noise ceased.

I climbed down from the bleachers to talk with Mom and Dad. Mom wiped tears from her eyes, and Dad looked so proud.

“Well, what do you think, Meg? Is he going to win?” Dad smirked.

John won by a landslide.

But he wasn’t finished there. Next, he said, “I want to go to college!”

John went on to attend the transition program at Sacramento City School District and was wildly successful. He graduated in December 2008. He was the only person who was slated for graduation that winter, but the program made sure to hold a ceremony just for him. The yoga studio across from the duplex where the program is based offered the use of its space for the commencement, and the coffee shop next door provided refreshments. We ran out of chairs half an hour before the ceremony was to begin. My brother’s graduation was a standing-room-only event by the time he walked up to the makeshift stage.

But that’s not all. After Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to the governorship, John said, “I want to meet the governor… No. I want to work for the governor.”

His contacts at the transition program set John up with an internship in the governor’s mailroom at the Capitol. John became friends with the governor and Maria Shriver, and he met all sorts of visiting dignitaries. My favorite picture of him at work shows John standing between Schwarzenegger and the president of Mexico. John asked the governor if John could have his internship as a real, paid job. A conversation was had, papers were signed, and on his 22nd birthday John took his oath of office, and has worked as an employee in the gubernatorial mailroom ever since.

Part of John’s success comes from his dedication. He sets a goal and goes for it without restraint. He’ll tell all his friends about it, gather support, and have at it. I have never seen him fail.

So, no, it wasn’t hard to have John around. In fact, it was inspiring to watch him grow up into the incredible man he has become. And every day, I sling my bag over my shoulder, grab my keys and head for the train, because I get to pick up my brother.

The author of this article is Meg Masterson and originally appeared on


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