Autism in the Family - Sibling Relationships

Continuing on the theme of relationships in families that have a child with autism, I wanted to spend some time today focusing on another important relationship that is often neglected - sibling relationships.

Having a brother or sister on the autism spectrum can be challenging for other kids in the family.  It can be difficult to understand their brother or sister's challenges.  Being out in public together or out with peers together can be frustrating or embarrassing for typically developing children.  Because of how much of the parent's time the child on the autism spectrum may require due to additional therapy appointments, discipline time, and other factors, the children who are not on the spectrum may feel neglected or forgotten in comparison.

Parents have a responsibility to work with all of the children in the family to build cohesion and understanding.  It is also important to make sure the needs of other children are not being neglected while parents are busy coping with the stresses of having a special needs child.

Talking to Siblings about Autism

The first step is to help the other children in the family understand the challenges of their brother or sister on the autism spectrum through clear communication.  These conversations should begin as early as possible in the process.  When talking to typically developing siblings, be mindful of their age and developmental level when choosing information to share.  Young children may be able to understand some basic symptoms whereas teenagers may want to know more detailed information about symptoms and causes of the condition.  Some of the same books that are used to help children on the spectrum understand their condition can be useful for brothers or sisters to understand their sibling's perspective in an age-appropriate way.

Also, be available for helping your children problem-solve how to handle questions or insensitive comments from peers and others.  These can be great opportunities for helping your child learn how to talk to others about disabilities in a calm and respectful manner.

Building Sibling Relationships

Because of the inherent social difficulties in autism, it can be difficult for typically developing children to form bonds with their sibling with autism.  Children may feel hurt or frustrated when their attempts to connect with a sibling with autism result in being ignored, witnessing tantrums, or other discouraging reactions.

While talking with typically developing children about the diagnosis and challenges of their sibling can help increase their understanding and empathy, sometimes children also need help in understanding how to interact with their sibling.  Children can be taught how to engage with a sibling with autism in the same ways that parents or therapists interact with the child.  Your child may enjoy learning tips for attracting their brother's or sister's attention, providing praise, and practicing specific language or social skills being targeted in class or therapy.

Be sure to validate your child's feelings of frustration, annoyance, or anger when they arise.  It can be quite challenging to have a sibling with special needs and it is important for them to feel that their perspective is being heard.  This can be a great opportunity to model how to manage frustration in an appropriate way.

Coping with special needs can be a great rallying point for families.  Some families like to get involved in advocacy or other projects to help those with the same challenges.  Others can use the opportunity to build sympathy, teamwork, and understanding among their children.

Making Time for Everyone

It is vitally important for parents to consistently make time for all of the children in the family.  Too often, it is easy to become consumed with the difficult schedule of appointments, interventions, and meetings for the child on the autism spectrum.  Setting aside special times or days for each child in the family is just as important as all of the other appointments.  Select an activity that your child enjoys and spend one-on-one time with them doing that activity.

For more thoughts on this topic, check out the following resources: