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Alexandria woman cares for severely autistic brother, calls him her hero

Viola Smith, 23, is the legal guardian for her brother, Joey, 25, who is autistic.

ALEXANDRIA - Viola Smith's hero will never save the world. All he has to do is smile, give her a hug or sing a song - and she is totally inspired.

"I love my brother," said 23-year-old Viola, an Alexandria resident. "He doesn't care what people think or say. He can't really take it all in and understand, but he still smiles, he still does things every day. And he is carefree.

"In a way, he is my hero."

If Joey Smith could vocalize his feelings, he would probably say the same thing about his fiercely loyal younger sister. But Joey is severely autistic, and also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"He will talk, but he can't say how he's feeling and know what he means," Viola explained.

Joey, 25, and Viola were born in California to a mother who was schizophrenic and a father who also had "mental issues." The children's maternal grandparents, Roy and Dorothy Weller, adopted Joey when he was a baby, and did the same two years later when Viola was born.

When Joey was 3, his grandparents found out he was autistic.

"At that time, no one really knew much about autism," said Viola, adding that Joey would not make eye contact and never wanted to be held. "We knew something was wrong but no one could put their finger on it."

As they were growing up, Viola became her older brother's teacher, friend and protector.

"I was the one who stood up for him," she said. "Any kid who has a sibling with a disability has a choice. They can be there to defend them and help them. Or they can just be there. I decided to be there and help him, teach him."

Because of her grandparents' age, Viola also knew from the time she was 6 years old that someday, she would be the one to take care of her brother. It was a thought that was always with her.

The family moved to Minnesota in 1996. Joey went to high school in Morris, where he was known as "the singing guy."

"If you start a song, he will finish that song. You turn on the radio and he will start singing away," Viola bragged. "He's very musically talented. He can't play instruments, but he has a beautiful voice. When I was in high school he would sing in the hallways and everybody would stop and listen to him."

At age 16, Joey had to move to a group home in Morris because he had occasional bouts of violent and aggressive behavior that his grandparents and sister were unable to control.

"It was the hardest day of my grandma's life," Viola lamented of moving him to the home. "At the same time, it took a lot of pressure off her."

He continued to attend school, and after spending a couple extra years in high school, Joey graduated at age 20, a day Viola says was "awesome."

With her grandparents in their 70s, Viola knew that she had to take steps to ensure that Joey's best interests were always in mind. At age 18, she tried to become his legal guardian, but found out that it wasn't possible until she was 21.

"I counted down the days," she said. "The day of my 21st birthday I was right there at court saying, 'I want to be his guardian.' "

In that role, Viola can make decisions on behalf of her brother. She will ultimately be responsible for all decisions regarding his care when her grandparents, who now reside in Herman, are no longer able.

Although Joey still lives at the group home in Morris and Viola lives in Alexandria, she visits him as often as she can. He currently works at the Developmental Achievement Center in Morris with the help of an aide. But Viola has higher hopes for her brother's future - she wants him to be able to "do something musical."

And Viola's brother, her hero, has inspired her own choices in life.

"I work with people with disabilities," she said. "It's my dream job, really."

Viola knows that as Joey's legal guardian, she may have a long road ahead of her. But she's ready and willing.

"I would do anything for him," Viola concluded. "I could lose my job...anything could happen. But I don't care as long as I'm there with my brother. When our grandparents are gone, we are all we have of each other."

What is autism?

April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities defined by significant impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to different sensations.

The learning abilities of people with ASDs can vary - from gifted to severely challenged. ASD begins before the age of 3 and lasts throughout a person's life.

People who have an ASD are different in how they act and what they can do. No two people with ASDs will have the same symptoms. They can have serious impairments with social, emotional and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors over and over again and don't react well to changes in their daily routine.

It is estimated that three to six out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. have autism - and the number of diagnosed cases is rising. It's not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism, a real increase in the number of cases, or both.

There is no cure for autism but treatment is typically behavior and communication therapies, educational therapies and drug therapies.