Our Own Language

My brother Charles is autistic and has been nonverbal for our whole lives.

I never wrote a song about my brother until 2015, when I started the band Charge It To The Game with Kyle Mabson. In the song “Charles,” I sing about how my brother will never “grow old.” He’ll never get married and start a family, he’ll never lose a job, and he’ll never stress about bills. He will never be fully independent, and in a sense, he’ll remain a child for the rest of his life.

My brother’s never said a word to me. As a child, I told kids my brother was shy and spoke a language they didn’t understand. Charles has been autistic and nonverbal for our whole lives. Our communication is purely body language. When Charles was eight years old, his psychiatrist told us he could speak, but chose not to. He purposely masked his voice. She recalled asking him, “Do you know you’re Charles?” and swore he responded, “I know,” in a low tone, almost a whisper. His elementary school teacher once told us she walked into a seemingly empty classroom, heard someone speaking, and peeked in to see Charles sitting alone. When she revealed herself, the voice abruptly stopped. He understands when we speak, and responds with action when asked to do a task. There have been attempts to use devices to help him express himself—machines from school with pictures and phrases that speak what he’d want to say—but he’s rejected them all.

I’ve longed for my brother to write something down or say anything at all to me. I’d give anything to know exactly what’s on his mind. Sometimes, I sat in his room and told him he could talk to me, and I’d never tell our parents what he said. I promised him this over and over, until he held my hand and nodded and I embraced him, reiterating the same promises in his ear, to no avail.

His oral expression is limited to grunting when upset and humming when pleased. When he’s frustrated, he bites his clenched fist and whimpers over his knuckles until something pleasant diverts his attention, like a cartoon or a snack. He threw these tantrums more often with our parents than with me, but we had our share of bickering when his mischievous side kicked in.

Our relationship has always been anchored by pranks. Charles used to love hiding toys and video games from me, laughing as I tore up the room, losing my wits trying to find my Metal Gear Solid 2 disc. When I did, I’d shoot him the evil eye and proceed to tickle the shit out of him. He’d laugh, I’d laugh, then we’d nag our parents for McDonald’s—I’d do so verbally, while he pointed to their logo on our coupon-covered refrigerator.

I’ve always felt like an only child. We never shared a room for more than a month or two. We never attended the same school, although we’re just a year apart. Our parents treated us differently out of necessity, but there were times I resented the attention he’d receive. Our family outings were contingent on his behavior. If my parents feared an outburst couldn’t be contained in the environment, we’d avoid the place. It couldn’t be too quiet. It couldn’t be too crowded. Plans often ended before they began.

I was envious of siblings on television. Growing up, I watched My Brother and Me, Smart Guy, and Malcolm in the Middle, and wished our lives were different. I desperately wanted the camaraderie they exuded. I wanted my brother and me to compete, fight, share, and laugh like the siblings in sitcoms. I wanted the feeling of “us versus them” when our parents reprimanded us. I wanted that partner in crime. I thought every family was like that, except for mine.

His condition prevented us from ever leading typical lives. Charles kept my parents on their toes, prepared to alter their plans at a moment’s notice. Their stress was apparent, and it became easier to keep things to ourselves. I rarely saw classmates outside of school and hardly had friends come over. I only knew a couple kids my age within walking distance and one was a cousin. They’d come play Sega Genesis or basketball occasionally, but after fourth grade, that happened less and less. I spent most of my free time alone in my room with a small television and an array of Nintendo 64 games, usually including a rental or two from Blockbuster. That alone time intensified when my dad gifted me an old PC. Luckily, I was allowed to keep it in my room and spent almost every waking moment pirating music, browsing Japanese video games on NCSX, and creating Angelfire websites for imaginary bands I dreamed of starting one day.

My father, a petroleum engineer, is quiet and a bit timid—he’s probably still shaken from his experiences in Nigeria’s Biafran War. He put privacy first in our household and was very protective of my brother, spending more time with him than with me. Looking back, I think my father’s concern for privacy stemmed from not wanting my atypical brother around typical people who’d potentially ridicule him. To this day, my father spends most of his time at home with my brother, working on his laptop while Charles plays suggested video after suggested video on YouTube. My father and I butted heads so often that I never thought I’d relate to him in any way. I had no aspirations to the tune of, “Like father, like son,” but his fondness for privacy absolutely rubbed off on me.

In a sense, my brother and I were both nonverbal. Charles never spoke and I rarely spoke of him because I never imagined I’d meet anyone that could relate. I longed to understand autism, but kept it all to myself. Today I’m more comfortable discussing our upbringing and I’ve finally begun to befriend people with a similar home life. These new friends have autistic siblings, but none are nonverbal like Charles. Emboldened by our shared experiences, I’m now more vocal about my brother and what makes our relationship special, which is part of why I was able to write a song about him. “Charles” also explores a question I’ve thought about for years: “I got love for my bro, but will he ever know?” He would: On a recent visit to Houston, I sat side by side with my brother in his room as he browsed YouTube search results. It was my first trip home since moving to Los Angeles last Christmas. When I mentioned that I’d missed him, he slid his hand on top of mine, holding it firmly while staring at the screen. He understood. “Charles” is still my favorite thing I’ve ever written, because I love my brother, and because it took so long to know how to say it.

Hailing from Houston’s Third Ward, Fat Tony (born Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu) is a Nigerian-American rapper who has played an integral role in shaping the Houston rap scene. In 2010, Fat Tony released his innovative debut full-length project RABDARGAB, produced by Tom Cruz. His second studio album Smart Ass Black Boy, released in 2013 on Young One Records, was well-received by critics for its warm, laid-back vibe. Fat Tony won awards in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 for Best Underground Hip Hop at the Houston Press Music Awards, and has worked on groundbreaking collaborations with the likes of Das Racist and A$AP Rocky.