Originally created 01/18/98

Special love

At first glance, Eric Barclay seems like the typical 14-year-old who loves to tease his younger brother and would rather spend his days playing basketball and videogames than reading a book.

Bashfully darting from room to room at his parents Grovetown home, the well-adjusted teen swigs Coca-Cola and snacks on tortillas. But this growing boy reveals that he isn't like other kids his age.

Sneering at his parents for asking him simple questions, Eric stomps out of the room in a tantrum.

"Sometimes we think he knows better and some things we know he understands," said Penny Barclay.

Eric has epilepsy and is mentally handicapped. As an infant, he began having seizures, which caused brain damage. Today the teen has the mental capacity of a 6-year-old, his mother said.

HIS YOUNGER BROTHER, Steven, 11, on the other hand, is an honor student who finds himself in the role of big brother, watching out for Eric and even chastising him at times.

Mrs. Barclay and her husband, Ralph, teachers at Euchee Creek Elementary School, said it has taken a lot of patience and hard work to raise two boys with very different needs without showing favoritism or dwelling too heavily on Eric's conditions.

Though the Barclays face many challenges, other families tell horror stories about raising special needs children along with their other children, said Alex Mabe, a clinical psychologist at the Medical College of Georgia who specializes in pediatrics.

Because children with special needs typically demand more time than those without, siblings sometimes feel deprived of love and attention, he said.

"There does seem to be an increased risk for social and psychological problems for the siblings of these special needs children," he said. "Some will feel neglected and resentful, but some siblings will grow up with a great deal of compassion and participate in the care-giving."

THAT IS THE CASE for Steven, who doesn't mind his brother tagging along with him and has promised his parents that he will always be there to take care of Eric when they are gone.

"I don't mind him going places with me," Steven said. "It (his behavior) bothers me, but not to the point of not letting him go with me. It's like having a big 3-year-old around. He sometimes embarrasses me. When we're in public he kisses on me and yells `my little baby brother."'

They say they are blessed that Steven understands his brother's condition enough not to be jealous of the attention and special treatment given to Eric.

"Steven usually understands or says `Mom, you shouldn't let him do that,"' she said. "Sometimes you wonder if he can help himself.... The main thing is he doesn't have any friends. When they see him, they say, `Hey, this guy is cool.' Then they realize something's wrong. Luckily, people like Steven, so they put up with Eric."

PEOPLE ARE OFTEN SURPRISED by Eric's behavior because he looks like a healthy teen-ager with no physical signs of impairment.

The Barclays want Eric to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible so that he can feel good about himself. They often worry about how he will survive when they are not around to care for him.

"He can't tie his shoes, and he'll probably never drive," Mr. Barclay said. "We built this house with him in mind. He'll probably never leave home."

THE BARCLAYS SAID THEY don't want Steven to feel obligated to care for his brother when they're adults, especially when Steven starts his own family.

Dr. Mabe said finding other support systems is an essential part of coping for families like the Barclays. Just having someone to run errands or baby-sit so that the parents can have a night on the town can be a tremendous stress reliever.

In some cases, money becomes a source of distress for the family. Health care for the handicapped child tends to drain family resources, leaving little money to spend on the healthy child, Dr. Mabe said.

JAMIE AND RAY VINTSON face similar financial challenges in raising their 3-year-old son, Timothy, who has cerebral palsy and is in therapy at Walton Rehabilitation Hospital.

Medical bills that aren't covered by Medicaid tax family resources that otherwise could be used for their 2-year-old daughter, Deborah, who does not have a disability.

"I can't work because it would take away from his therapy," Mrs. Vintson said. "It's getting to a point where if I could work it would really help (financially)."

Mrs. Vintson said that although they are young, the children understand that one has special needs.

"Timothy gets frustrated because he sees his cousins and nephews that are the same age, walking and running around and he can't," Mrs. Vinton said. "And Deborah knows that her brother is different and that he goes to therapy and she doesn't."

Making sure both of them feel loved and get plenty of attention is something that they have to work on, she said. To keep Deborah from feeling left out, each parent spends quality time with the children apart on the weekends, Mrs. Vintson said.

"They seem to like having Mommy or Daddy to themselves sometimes," she said.

DR. MABE ENCOURAGES parents to maintain lines of communication with the healthy child, making sure he or she understands the situation. He said it's always important for parents to spend quality time with both children and place equal emphasis on each of their accomplishments and needs.

"I like to encourage families to maintain normal experiences like birthdays and holidays and not to allow the impaired child to interrupt normal life experiences," Dr. Mabe said. "All of the family interaction should not be focused around the impaired child. Give the other child some attention."

AS EDUCATORS, the Barclays said they understood early on the importance of encouraging both children to participate in activities that would cultivate self-esteem and brotherly love.

When Eric was younger he played sports and still participates in a variety of activities, including bowling, horse-back riding and basketball.

"We told them they had to try every sport at least once," said Mrs. Barclay. "If they didn't like it, they could stop that day."

Steven said participating in activities with his brother provides a sense of normalcy for their relationship. Though he does not feel angry toward his brother, he does sometimes wonder "what if."

"There are things I can't tell my parents, and it would be nice to tell my brother. I'm always wondering what it would be like with a normal brother," he said. "I don't really wish for it. I'm just curious."


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