Most siblings of children who have autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) fare well. Many even become quite helpful in the day-to-day functioning of the household. Some become great advocates for their siblings and even go on to choose professions that assist people with disabilities. But others may experience tremendous stress and resentment. Most siblings have a mix of emotions, feeling loving and supportive one minute, angry and bitter the next. Exactly how the typically developing children in a household respond to having a sibling with an ASD depends on the ages of the children and their maturity. It also depends on family dynamics.
Different children will have different concerns.
Very young children are often worried about strange behaviors that scare or confuse them. Some children may be afraid of being the target of their sibling’s anger and aggression. Others may try to compensate for the things that their siblings can’t do. Some children are jealous over the attention that their sibling receives from their parents. Others may be frustrated at not being able to engage in a relationship with their sibling.
Teenagers may be concerned about what the future holds for their sibling with an ASD. They may worry about the role they’ll need to play in caring for their sibling. Other children may wonder how to explain ASDs to their friends and feel embarrassed by their sibling’s unusual behaviors and social deficits. Still others may become worried about their parents’ stress and grief. Whatever emotions your typical child expresses, respect those feelings, however uncomfortable they may be to you.
What Parents Can Do
Having open and honest discussions about autism at a level and in a way that your children can understand is critical to helping the siblings of a child with an ASD. If you do not tell your other children about their sibling’s ASD, they may feel increasingly isolated or confused. But don’t just offer one conversation or discussion about autism. Keep talking about it with your children as they grow up. When they are younger they might not understand the term ASD, but you can start by talking about the differences that other children may have and about what it means to have a disability. You could even read books with them that have some characters with disabilities. Listen carefully to their concerns, which will certainly change over time.
It’s also important to foster a relationship among siblings. Children who have ASDs typically have challenges with social skills. Siblings may give up when they can’t engage them in interactions. But siblings can be taught simple ways to engage a child with an ASD and with time can provide a natural way for children with ASDs to work on their social skills.
Promote Sibling Harmony
Parents can ease the burden on siblings by trying to set aside some time to be alone with each of their children. It may be as little as a few minutes before bedtime or as much as a weekly afternoon outing. And remember the important events in all your children’s lives. If your child with an ASD can’t attend another child’s graduation, find someone to be with him so you can still go.
Do the best you can to try and set reasonable expectations of your child with an ASD as you do with your other children in terms of chores and personal responsibilities
. Doing so will not only help your child with an ASD develop the skills he needs to live as independently as possible; it will also help to dispel any notions of unfair treatment by siblings. Of course, being fair does not always mean equal responsibilities for all children. You will need to have ongoing talks with siblings about the challenges that autism brings for their sibling with an ASD and how they need to be understanding.
Finally, try to model a healthy perspective. How you view your child’s ASD can be a source of strength for other family members. By seeking out information and support, you are showing your other children how to be strong and resilient in the face of a challenging circumstance. Also, by dwelling on the positive aspects of parenting your child with an ASD, you model the behavior that you want your other children to show toward those with disabilities.