My brother is brilliant -- and wildly inappropriate!

At 38, he slurps his cereal, dresses bizarrely and throws childish temper tantrums.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 17, 2008 9:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My younger brother is a very bright guy who, I guess, is socially and emotionally stunted. I almost don't know how to start describing him. He causes my mom and dad a certain amount of pain because although he lives only a couple of hours away by car he never comes to visit. He also doesn't voluntarily contact them unless it is to ask a specific, practical question (strangely, usually about basic stuff, like how to clean a paintbrush or pull up weeds!). My dad has Alzheimer's but he is still quite aware, and he is hurt by the fact that my brother seems to have turned his back on his parents. My mom is also very hurt by the fact that my brother seems not to care about his family. He doesn't send birthday cards, anniversary cards, sympathy cards ... whatever it is, he has opted out of it.

The strange thing is that when we were growing up my brother was sort of the "perfect" one because his grades were so high and my parents thought of him as the less difficult of us two. I was seen as moody and underachieving, and also problematic for caring about clothes, hair, makeup, boys and friends. I have heard that parents often find male children "easier" and maybe that's what was going on.

Anyway, that's my baggage. Present day: My brother has a doctorate from an Ivy League university but you might be surprised to learn that if you saw him. I live in Europe with my husband. My brother and his wife have been visiting, staying with us. To go sightseeing, my brother (who is 38) has been wearing baggy nylon gym shorts with a T-shirt tucked into them, a big white canvas hat, and white socks and gym shoes. Although he makes a decent professional salary and bought a house outright (no mortgage), he is very cheap, so he buys his clothes at discount stores. While he has been here he has been refilling his water bottles at our place and then carrying them around in his shorts pockets all day. We took them sightseeing around the historic center of the city and people were literally doing double takes and staring at my brother -- maybe they were wondering if he was some sort of promotion for a "Napoleon Dynamite" sequel, or a new fashion-related stunt by Sasha Baron Cohen. He, meanwhile, is proud of himself for not bowing to social pressure to wear anything he doesn't deem comfortable. In his mind, his own behavior is always "logical" and it's everyone else who is too stupid to see that.

His personal hygiene is sketchy and he also has horrible table manners. For instance, he will hold a bowl of cereal right in front of his face and shovel the food into his mouth, chewing loudly and quickly. Any suggestion that this is not how civilized people eat will be met with anger and scorn -- as far as he's concerned, he's eating "efficiently," and those of us who do unnecessary things like leave the bowl on the table -- or ask before we help ourselves to all the seconds -- are just superficial.

He has a hair-trigger temper and will blow up, scream "Aaaargh!" (I am not making this up) and swear if I try to call him on anything or even make a suggestion (like two days ago, when I suggested he not carry the water bottles in his shorts because it looked ... odd). He and his wife will get angry and say "Fuck you!" to each other, which, needless to say, makes them fairly stressful house guests. His wife has chronic fatigue and can't work, which she feels results in his treating her with a lack of respect -- because she isn't bringing in any money. I think this is part of the reason she doesn't try to call him on his behavior either.

I know this might sound stupid but I feel really sad that he's not, for lack of a better word, an adult. I see people with close friendships with their adult siblings and I just can't figure out how we ended up so different. My dad is probably not going to be with us for that much longer and I'm the one who flies back home (a 16-hour trip) to try to help with stuff like cleaning out the gutters and climbing the trees with a pruning saw -- my brother could drive there and he doesn't. My mom is having some health problems too now, and honestly, I just want to yell at my brother to stop thinking he can get away with dressing, eating and acting like a bratty 8-year-old, and grow up.

Do you think I (or anyone else) can get through to him? How? Underneath all this weirdness I think he's a good person with a good heart. I also believe family is very important. Do you think maybe I'm just expecting too much?

Thank you for your wonderful column.


Dear F,

I'm not trained or qualified to diagnose people, but it sure sounds like your brother has a classic case of Asperger syndrome. If so, he might benefit from seeing someone who could provide a diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Shana Nichols of the Fay J. Lindner Center for Autism, quoted in the article "What Treatments Are Available for Adults With Asperger Syndrome?" on, says that some of the treatments normally given to children with autism can be appropriate for adults with Asperger syndrome. But it depends on how the adult responds to the diagnosis. "Family work is often indicated," Nichols also says in the article. "There are often rifts that have occurred where siblings are no longer talking. We explore the questions, 'What do you want to tell your family? How would you like to repair relationships?' Sometimes we have families come in to work on issues together."

It sounds as though your family has felt significant strain as a result of your brother's personality. So if it were to turn out that he has this condition, and were willing to take steps to try to mitigate the effects his behavior has on his family, you and your parents both might benefit. He would as well. It certainly cannot be easy going through life with the kind of personality and behaviors that cause others to blanch, or avoid you.

You might also contact FAAAS, or Families of Adults Affected by Asperger's Syndrome. Its page of links may have some useful information.

And take a look at this Google Books excerpt from the book "Asperger's Syndrome and Adults -- Is Anyone Listening?" It's a collection of essays and poems by partners, parents and family members of adults with Asperger syndrome.

Your parents must feel quite hurt and confused by your brother's apparent neglect. They might feel better if they knew that their son's hurtful behavior is typical of people with Asperger syndrome, and that it doesn't mean he does not love them. He just does not show his love in the expected ways. He may actually want to visit his parents but need some help in doing so. Perhaps he would visit more often if someone would help arrange the visits.

I wish you luck with this. I must repeat of course that I can't diagnose your brother. But I do think his behavior warrants a visit to an expert in Asperger syndrome. And you yourself might benefit from talking with others who have such folks in their families.

Again, good luck. I hope this helps.

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Cary Tennis

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