DEAR ABBY: I have a beautiful 3-year-old niece I'll call "Serena." She is my brother "Simon's" daughter. Serena is mildly autistic but has made amazing progress. We're optimistic that she'll be indistinguishable in a few years.
The problem is, Simon is adamant that he does not want our parents to know about Serena's condition. Mom and Dad are good people, but lousy grandparents. Simon thinks they would be judgmental toward him and would gossip about matters he would prefer be kept private. He might be right. But because he is keeping them in the dark, his relationship with them has deteriorated. Our parents haven't seen Serena since she was a baby.
Simon has threatened that if I tell our parents about Serena's autism, he will never speak to me again. That would cost me a relationship not only with him, but also with my niece. I have encouraged him to come clean, but he refuses.
What should I do? Should I stay out of it, or intervene? And is this kind of situation typical with families who have children with special needs? -- UNCLE WITH A SECRET
DEAR UNCLE: When a family member is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, some families consider it to be something shameful, and "circle the wagons" to hide it. While it is regrettable, this is the path your brother has chosen. Not knowing your parents' level of sophistication, I'm guessing he may be right about them and that he prefers to allow them into his daughter's life only after her problem has become "indistinguishable in a few years" -- if ever.
If you value your relationship with Simon, do not reveal his secret. Obviously he trusts you, or he wouldn't have taken you into his confidence. If you betray him, your relationship will never be the same.
DEAR ABBY: I come from a dysfunctional family. I was never close to my brothers and sister. About 10 years ago, I became friends with a gentleman I'll call "Eric." Our relationship is platonic -- we're like siblings. We "talk" almost every day by e-mail because he now lives out of state.
When I mention to my other friends that I have a male friend, I get a funny look because they assume Eric and I are having some kind of affair. They say men and women can't be friends without something sexual going on between them. When I tell them this isn't the case, they don't buy it. What can I say or do to get them to believe me? -- TELLING THE TRUTH IN OHIO
DEAR TELLING THE TRUTH: Nothing. So stop arguing. When someone tells you that men and women can't be friends without something sexual going on, that person is telling you something about him- or herself. Obviously, as you already know, there are no hard-and-fast rules governing friendship. Sometimes people have "good chemistry" and click -- and this happens with same-sex friendships as well as those with the opposite sex.
DEAR ABBY: Is it ever appropriate for a grandmother to expect payment to baby-sit her grandchildren? -- TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THING
DEAR TRYING: It depends upon the situation and how much time Grandma is devoting to taking care of the children. If the grandmother needs the money, and the amount of time she's tending to the children interferes with her ability to earn a living and provide for her retirement, then by all means she should be paid -- and at least minimum wage.
Abby shares more than 100 of her favorite recipes in two booklets: "Abby's Favorite Recipes" and "More Favorite Recipes by Dear Abby." Send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $12 (U.S. funds)
to: Dear Abby -- Cookbooklet Set, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in price.)
4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111; (816) 932-6600