Raising a child with autism can add additional strain and stress on any family, including the siblings. It often affects the dynamics of the family, the relationship between the parents, and discrepancies in birth order. Children who have a brother or a sister on the spectrum can be affected in many ways, some good and some bad. How a sibling of a child with autism responds is often correlated to the behavior of the parents.
When a child has autism, or any type of special need or disability, extra attention is often required. If the extra attention is not addressed or acknowledged by the parents it could cause the sibling to foster resentment towards their brother/sister. In many cases where the parents are open and transparent, the siblings may become overly defensive in protecting their parents from the child with special needs or the special needs child themselves.
Siblings are known for embracing their brother or sister’s diagnosis when it is understood. Often times they are the child’s biggest ally and supporter, not because they have too, but because they choose too. In many social situations such as school, siblings can be seen protecting and avenging bullies, students and adults who might mistreat, make fun of, or judge the child with a disorder.
Many siblings, like Will’s two sisters, work to assist him in his daily tasks, his hygiene, social relationships, and school work. Why? Because as parents we have cultivated this relationship. We treat all three of our children as equally as possible. We are open, apologetic, and understanding; because of that we have enabled our children to the opportunity to foster a relationship with their brother based on love, support, understanding, and acceptance.
Parents should be prepared to meet all I their children’s need in order to diminish anger, hostility, jealousy and other harbored resentments . We have found 12 things to do within our family to encourage relationships between our child with autism and their siblings as well as with us, the parents.
1. Educate Your Non-Disabled Child.
One of the most important things a parent can do is to nurture the love between siblings. All siblings!!! Those affected by autism and your neuro-typical (non-disabled) child. In order to foster those relationships you must first educate your child’s siblings on their disorder/diagnosis. By helping the siblings understand the disorder, you are providing them with the necessary information to accept their brother/sisters weaknesses, behaviors, and idiosyncrasies. Depending on the age of the siblings, it might also be beneficial to share the why’s as to the why they require special attention, and the how’s of the disability may cause lapsed mental growth or judgement, excessive behaviors, and lack of social skills
2. Encourage Ways your Children can be Supportive of their Brother/Sister and Parents.
It’s very important that opportunities be given for siblings to be supportive and help their brother/sister with special needs. One way to do this is for them to assist the sibling with certain tasks around the house or in public. If your special needs child is involved in Special Olympics, the Chess Team or the Reading Club make sure they have their siblings full support. It is also vitally important that your children support you as well by picking up the slack when necessary especially if siblings are older.
3. Allow Siblings the Opportunity to Express their Feelings without Correction, Ridicule, or Guilt.
As parents validate their feelings DESPITE how it might make you feel. Parents should encourage all family members to talk about their feelings. Asking them how it makes them feel personally, to have a sibling with autism. Understand that your child may need some time and space to process their feelings. Talk to your child often about their sibling’s diagnosis and encourage them to express any questions and feelings they may have, good or bad. Having a sibling with autism can cause immense frustration for siblings. Although being knowledgeable about autism can be helpful, there will be times that feelings will get hurt, emotions will be heightened, and tempers will flare. You and your child knowing how to cope in these situations is critical.
Some siblings may harbor feelings of frustration and stress from not being able to socially communicate with their brother/sister, not being able to control the actions of bullies and others who treat their sibling differently, or jealousy stemming for the fact that their sibling receives the majority of the attention.
4. Include all of your children in your activities whenever appropriate.
Our family enjoys going out to eat, going to baseball games, movies, and swimming. This is something we can all do together! For your child with autism the world is their classroom. Don’t hinder their learning by keeping them hidden away because you are unsure of how they are going to react. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. I’m not saying take a chance and not take the necessary precautions or make preparations. But I am saying give your kid a chance to be successful!
If your child is similar to mine and doesn’t handle long periods of time away from home- do mini vacay’s. Every couple of months we take a short trip, Branson, MO sometimes Memphis, TN or even places located in our home state.
5. Make time for one-on-one attention for each child- including the child with autism.
There are also activities my girls enjoy that my son just can not handle… Likewise, there are activities my son enjoys that my daughters don’t, as in any family. It is vital to your relationship with your children to spend individual time with each of them, equally as important as it is that your children spend quality time with parents together. Some activities could include girls day outs, daughter- daddy dates, boys days, and mother and son dates or activities.
6. Encourage and Provide Opportunities for ALL Siblings to Share some Activity, Interest, or Hobby.
Research has shown that while children tend to resent siblings with autism due to the amount of attention they receive and their perception that “the world revolves around them,” they also exhibit a stronger than usual bond with their sibling. However, these bonds are not likely to form overnight and may require some influence from you as parents.
One of our kids favorite activities is to go to the zoo and baseball games. We also enjoying cooking together as a family, swimming, and playing games. It is very important that your children are able to be seen as equals by you as well as each other. By participating in the same hobbies, interests, or activities this can be attained.
7. Celebrate Each Child’s Accomplishments.
Attempt to put forth the same amount of effort when rewarding your children, although their accomplishments may vary in importance to most. For example we celebrate one of our daughters for excelling in academics, and the other for excelling in sports while we celebrate our sons accomplishments for brushing his teeth independently or tying his own shoes. We make certain to make all our children feel important and valued for anything they accomplish!!
8. Allow Siblings to Walk Away.
I have told my girls that if we are in public and their brother has a meltdown or begins to misbehave they can pretend they don’t know us!!! Grant it our girls are 15 and 11. We have instructed them to stay in the immediate area or close but they do not have to acknowledge our presence. This was such a relief to my girls and I understand! There are times I would like to walk away and pretend I didn’t know them either… Right!!! I know I am not the only bad mother who has thought that!! Your children don’t always want to be identified or labeled as the brother or sister of … the kid who screams all the time, gets naked, or eats his boogers at 13.
Explain to your child with autism and their siblings that not everybody understands what autism is or the behaviors that often come with it. Therefore they will often treat people on the spectrum differently because of it. Prepare them by presenting different scenarios or potential situations and discuss the various “exit strategies” that one might use when in a difficult situation.
9. Teach Siblings how to handle Aggressive or Nagging Behaviors.
All family members including the siblings must feel safe in their home environment. Children should feel their personal belongings are safe from harm or destruction from the brother or sister on the spectrum. It is important for parents to discuss strategies and ways for the siblings to react when the child with autism is exhibiting aggressive behaviors. It should also be determined how to keep private/prized items belonging to his/her siblings in places that are not within the reach of curious or destructive hands. Our girls are very aware of their brothers tendencies. They know they are allowed to hit their brother back if he hits them (remember they are ALL teens; younger children would need a different approach) and in order to keep their possessions safe, they keep their door locked.
10. Set High Expectations for All your Children.
It is necessary to the well-being of your family to treat all of your children fairly and do not grant your child on the autism spectrum special treatment because he/she doesn’t “understand.” You should not tolerate unruly behavior like hitting or biting from your child on the spectrum, if you punish their siblings for similar actions. Although the punishments or consequences might be different the behavior should be addressed amongst all. If the child with autism displays aggressive behaviors there are many different behavior modifications, and interventions that can be used. For ideas, look into our other articles in the categories Behavior 911 or Autism. I would also recommend you consult your child’s behavioral therapist, mental health specialist, occupational, speech or physical therapist, teacher or doctor for suggestions.
In the same regard, if your children have chores or responsibilities your child with autism should too. Our son has many chores around the house- they maybe less detailed than some of his sisters chores but he is responsible for them just the same.
11. DO NOT Continually Interrupt or End Events because of the Special Needs Child.
Adequate preparations should always be made. Parents of a child with Autism should always have several plans of exit which shouldn’t include the entire family having to leave. Your other children should never feel like they are missing out or being punished for their brother/sisters behavior. Drive separate vehicles, have kids catch a ride home or one parent consoles child elsewhere. But do not punish your other children for your lack of preparation.
12. Never Make a Sibling Responsible for their brother/sister with Autism without asking Permission.
Although it is sometimes difficult not to say- hey keep an eye on your brother, watch him for a few minutes, or can’t you help. DON’T!! Our kids are very close in age- although Will is our middle child he is more like the baby because of his disability. It has been very important to Kris and I- that our girls do not feel responsible for him. If there are occasions we need extra help we ask. We don’t tell them or force them. We don’t want their childhood to be of memories full of resentment and anger towards their brother. He is our child not theirs.
Growing up these days isn’t easy… But growing up being the sibling of someone on the spectrum is even more difficult. Although children adjust in different ways, there are a number of challenges that accompany growing up with a brother or sister on the spectrum. As parents, grandparents, educators or friends it is vital that we support these siblings as much as we do the child with autism. Because although life can be challenging and even down right embarrassing- its overcoming those challenges that make the experience that much more rewarding.