Samantha Alvarado

Leveling Up: How My Brother’s Autism "Gamified" My Approach to Life

April 16, 2018

Video games: If you ever need help defeating a boss or getting through a tough level, my brother Kingston is your guy. Kingston knows nearly every video game like the back of his hand and if that’s not impressive enough, he’s only 9 years old. He remembers facts that no one else can, such as the exact date and time that the new Super Mario Bros. will be released, and every sound effect and theme song in the video game world.

However, if you want to have a simple conversation on any topic other than video games with him, that’s a level of play he can’t quickly master.

At the age of 2, my brother was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, also known as “high-functioning autism.” This changed the life I was used to, but also made me realize how strong I could be.

I attribute my work ethic and my open mind and heart to the life I’ve lived with a younger brother who is decidedly not your “average” person.

“Mutant and Proud”

“Mutant and proud,” with this and a fist pump, out the door Kingston goes. That’s how my mother says her goodbyes to my brother every morning.

sam-brotherMinutes prior, there’s the usual morning chaos that involves me helping Kingston with his homework as I wrestle him for his iPad, while mom struggles to pull his shirt over his head, flip pancakes, and call out repeated orders to “GET DRESSED” to our sister Aaliyah. Not your normal household, not your normal kids. But we’ve learned to embrace this. After all, we’re all mutants, aren’t we?

Because of my brother’s autism, I haven’t had the luxury of being a carefree kid like some of my peers. To make matters more interesting, when I was 7 years old, I too was diagnosed with a learning disability: dyslexia. Although my parents did their best to accommodate my needs, my brother’s situation was overwhelming. In order not to burden them, I faced many challenges alone. Completing school assignments was a challenging mission but I practiced, listened to the advice of my teachers, and took advantage of the individual education program (IEP).

Like my brother, I saw myself facing obstacles that the “average” person wasn’t facing, and I learned to never complain, because he didn’t.

A Different Journey

Kingston struggles a lot more in school than I do. He sometimes uses earmuffs or a headsets to protect him from loud noises. He has a hard time making friends due to the difficulty he has expressing himself like others. I think this is why video games have always been his escape. He finds friends in the fictional characters, amusement in the stories, and sees it as a space to socialize without judgement.

Video games are easier than people, they tell better stories,” my brother has said. “They take you on a journey.”

Growing up with an autistic sibling has definitely taken me on a journey. Not many people can easily understand and accept what they are not used to, and not many people understand or accept my brother. Understanding my brother and his struggles made me a better person and helped me understand myself. I attribute my work ethic and my open mind and heart to the life I’ve lived with a younger brother who is decidedly not your “average” person.

In my 17 years, my brother has taught me that there isn’t a hack or cheat in the world that can teach you patience, independence and focus; only experience can do that. From watching my little sister while my mother ran after Kingston, to dealing with uncomfortable high school transitions and maintaining straight As, I work to make sure that dyslexia doesn’t define me, in the same way that autism doesn’t define my brother.

In many ways, Kingston is to me what most of the superheroes in his video games are to him.

And thanks to him, I’ve been able to “level up” faster than most kids my age.


April is National Autism Awareness Month. You can find resources on the Austism Society website.

Samantha Alvarado, 18, is a senior at Fashion Industries High School in New York City. In high school, she developed a passion for understanding society and people. She hopes to use this passion to advocate for people and families living with autism. She will attend college in the fall of 2018, and plans to study sociology.