By Briony, 63. Adelaide, SA
If you were to position my brother Jerome on the autism spectrum, he would be in the mesosphere! Now, before you judge me on the title of this piece, my family are proud of Jerome’s weirdness. There was nothing bland or mediocre about him and the rest of us are pretty weird as well.
Jerome was born on the 3rd of March 1957. Autism was a very newly recognised condition, certainly not well known and as understood as thankfully it is today. I was born fifteen months later and, as such, never knew life without my quirky brother. Jerome was an absurdly beautiful child. Dark long lashes, blonde hair, great bone structure and unblemished skin. Unlike myself with light eyebrows, freckled skin and hair that took some time to grow.
It was only because I developed at an average rate that my mum started to notice traits in Jerome that were not typical. Jerome made repetitive sounds with no recognisable speech. Jerome wasn’t cuddly and avoided contact. My parents took Jerome to Adelaide Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed as autistic at the age of three by a very astute Dr Dibden. In the early days, many people mixed up autism with being artistic, as mum was an artist and therefore, Jerome must be artistic.
What he lacked in communication skills he more than made up for in coordination. Once he started moving, he could climb and take off at the speed of lightning and some of my earliest memories are having to keep an eye on him so he wouldn’t run away. A few times when he managed to get away, he was brought home in a police car licking an ice cream. Mum had to discourage the police from this practice as it only encouraged his escapes. One of my earliest memories is of him on a swing doing a full 360-degrees. Those were the good old days when play equipment was lethal. Strangely enough, the time he really hurt himself most was when he broke his hip jumping on the bed.
When I was four, my other weirdo brother Matthew came on the scene. Jerome had very unusual sleep patterns, sleeping very little and roaming around the house at night. Our house was secured with heavy locks. Mum, thinking that it would give me better sleep, put me in with my new baby brother. What a disaster! Matthew, as babies do, woke up crying for feeds. I soon requested to be returned to Jerome’s room. He was much quieter and didn’t turn on the lights, and I got a much better sleep.
As families do, we looked for a cure for Jerome. This took us to Melbourne and London. My dad got a job for two years at Australia House London. We lived in London from 1967 to 1968. The weather in London was dismal and for Jerome, who loved being outdoors, a nightmare. He really suffered and became very unwell. I clearly remember mum crying listening to the hit song “The Green, Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones. My nana encouraged my parents to send Jerome back to Adelaide to live at Minda Home, where they could visit regularly, as they lived on Jetty Road Brighton. In those days, a child could fly accompanied by a stewardess. I imagine that would have been a very challenging experience for her!
My nana was right. Jerome had found a place where he belonged in Minda Home. So really, there is no place like home! Both Jerome and myself were Adelaide-born, and poor Matthew has had to carry the stigma of being a Victorian.
Living in London was a very enriching time for me and I have many vivid memories of my time there, even though Jerome had to return home a year earlier. I was able to see The Sound of Music when it first came out, and my love for this film lives on to this present day. But that’s a whole other story.
Just as we returned to Adelaide, Jerome broke his hip and was sent to Estcourt House Tennyson, a children’s convalesce home at the time. He would tear around the place on his stomach on a contraption that looked like a wide skateboard. He was a danger to all in his path. Strangely enough, one of my dad’s grand plans was actually a blessing. Dad had, on advice, bought a Mark 10 Jag over from England thinking he would make a bundle. This car was very wide so Jerome was able to lie in the back seat with his full hip cast. This was 1969, so no seat belts required. Dad lost money when he sold the Jag but it served its purpose and I loved being seen in it.
As Jerome entered his teenage years, he developed epilepsy — another challenge for him, as he must have been terrified with no understanding of what was happening to him. At this time, I started dating and thought, who would want to be part of our weirdo family? Luckily, I met my wonderful husband who always considered Jerome the sanest member of the family. Greg believed Jerome did what he wanted, when he wanted, didn’t work, lived by the beach and had everyone running around after him — himself included. On Jerome’s weekend visits, Greg would rush to make him coffee and peanut butter on toast. They had a mutual admiration for each other. When my husband died in 2014, one of Jerome’s carers heard him crying one night — something that happened after our dad died as well. It was with great sadness that only six months after Greg’s death, Jerome died suddenly.
Jerome made me who I am today. I am stronger, kinder, resilient and compassionate. I am a better person because Jerome was my brother.