Continuing our interview series, where we shine a light on All Kinds of Perspectives from across the Neurodiverse community, we meet sibling and autism advocate, Faith Cole. The speaker, author and researcher sat down with us last month as we explored her journey from East London to the USA – and how her two autistic brothers may just have been the catalyst to her thriving communications career.
Please don’t tell me I’m normal. Faith Cole’s impassioned appeal to a captive audience during her 2012 TED Talk: What I’ve Learned from My Autistic Brothers – vignettes from her life growing up with two younger Neurodivergent siblings, Remi and Samuel.
Ten years on from her TED Talk – which has garnered over 1.4 million views – the multi-passionate Londoner now sits with me on Zoom from her home office in the United States. The archetypal author, Cole, sits before skyscraper bookcases filled with stories as she recounts her own. Detailing life as a speaker, communications aficionado, mother, researcher, podcaster and sibling I’m intrigued to unravel it all, starting at the beginning: South-East London in the 1990’s.
“Growing up, I was always an avid reader and storyteller. Stories offered a welcomed distraction from a challenging reality. As a young child, I couldn’t quite articulate why our family seemed so different from everyone else’s. So, I lived in books and wrote short stories. My love for communication started there – in the corner of my room – figuring out what our family was experiencing.”
Faith explains how, unlike now, there was no international spotlight on autism. Many families dealt with their circumstances privately, and were still piecing together support systems and resources in order to be able to function.
“Autism was still very much a topic that was not openly discussed in my community. Even though increasing amounts of families were navigating it, they were very much operating in silos. It’s only now when I look back on my childhood that I’m floored at all my parents had to overcome, especially coming from an Afro-Caribbean background. My childhood was different, but my parents strived to give me memorable experiences.”
Being nonverbal, Remi’s neurodivergence was evident early on, and he received intervention and support from an onslaught of therapists, psychologists and social workers.
“I learned his language. There were things he could communicate even without words. It was clear when he was hungry or tired. It was clear when he wanted to engage and play. He has a loving spirit, which to this day allows him to have special bonds with people he comes into contact with. Teachers, social workers and therapists always loved working with him.”
Unlike Remi, it was not as obvious in the beginning what was going on with Samuel. Despite having assistance in primary school, it wasn’t until secondary school when it became clear that he was also on the spectrum.
“For me, Samuel’s diagnosis showed that autism in itself can look so different depending on the individual. And how important it is to understand each individual’s needs in order to meet them where they are. He has a lot more language, and a lot more understanding of his surroundings than Remi. It has been challenging for him to grapple with the idea that he also has a different kind of mind – it’s something he is still coming to terms with in his twenties.”
It wasn’t until leaving the nest years later that Faith accepted how unique her upbringing was. With a lot of faith, prayer and a little hindsight, she knows that with every challenge comes an opportunity to learn: “My belief is that with every challenge there is an opportunity to be educated, inspired and grow. I believe I have had a fast track in some of those areas because of the conditions we had growing up and seeing my brothers navigate their life.”
Support for parents; support for neurodivergent young people and adults; what about support for the neurotypical siblings who are forced to grow up quicker than their schoolyard peers and become carers. These are the siblings who understand how someday, based on changes in their family’s dynamics, responsibility will inevitably be thrust upon them.
My life is enriched because of my brothers…
“As a sibling, you are their defender, an advocate, you are responsible, and as you get older, you understand there will be responsibility put on you. I have had some real conversations with my husband about the future. There is an understanding that life may change drastically at any point.”
When asked about advice for the neurotypical/neurodivergent sibling community, Faith prescribes self-care and pursuing your dreams in preparation for the future.
“It is a very challenging role to take on if you aren’t tending to your own needs. Self-care and support for siblings is essential at a young age, and even moreso as they get older. Moving away from the UK was a hard decision to make, but my rationale has always been to pursue everything I can now because I know there could be a day when my brothers would need me to show up for them in a greater capacity. I am thankful that I’ve been able to experience things I used to write stories about. My advice for siblings would be to prepare, pursue your best life while you can, and practice self-care.”
And now, the building blocks of her life, leading to a career in communications, seem to connect so perfectly. Can we thank Remi and Samuel for Faith’s career and her bright future? Whatever the reason, Faith just exudes pure gratitude for her lot in life:
My advice for siblings would be to prepare, pursue your best life while you can, and practice self-care.”
“My life is enriched because of my brothers. They have shaped who I am, and how I function. The way I see things, I have grown up with two very extraordinary young men who communicate differently. Daily, I am reminded of my privilege to be able to speak, move and write freely. I have seen them struggle to articulate their needs, their passions and their desires. Anytime I am able to share our story, or encourage other families, I think it’s a complete honour. I am a person of faith and I believe we are all placed in certain families for a reason. Being blessed with neurodivergent family members, friends or someone in your community, is an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. I know it is a challenge, but I really do believe we’ve been equipped with the inner strength to pull through.”
For more information on Faith Cole and her work, please visit faithcole.com. You can also check out Faith’s podcast, These Three Remain, which she hosts with her husband, Nathaniel, below.