When a family has a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can be difficult to find time for the other children. Parents may feel guilty or anxious about how to address the needs of the other children. Siblings of children with Autism face similar challenges to those of their parents, but they may be at an age where they have not had the opportunity to develop appropriate coping strategies. Depending on the age of the sibling, they may not fully understand why their brother or sister is acting different. With the family dealing with the issues of Autism, they too will need support to make sure they are informed, feel respected and understand how to be a compassionate advocate for their sibling.
It’s advisable for parents to start explaining about Autism to typically developing children in the family as soon as they think they can understand, or as soon as they’re old enough to notice that their brother or sister is acting differently from other children. This helps them adjust to their sibling’s disability, and avoids misconceptions about ASD. Parents will notice that as their typically developing children get older and are able to understand more, they will need more information and will ask more complicated questions about ASD.
In most cases, siblings of children with ASD adjust fine. They tend to be more tolerant, compassionate, caring, and independent. However, sometimes typically developing children can experience a range of difficult or negative feelings too. For example, at different times they might feel jealous of the amount of time that parents spend with the child with ASD and not understand the reasons. They may feel confused or discouraged that their sibling does not want to play with them. Often they can feel angry when their sibling gets out of chores or gets away with poor or aggressive behavior; whereas they get reprimanded. As the children get older they may in fact become protective of their sibling with ASD or conversely embarrassed and avoidant.
Advice for Parents
Just like your child with autism, your other children need your time and attention. The following are ways you can give your typically developing children positive attention and help them feel special. Ultimately, you want to encourage positive relationships among all your children.
- Set aside regular daily times for your children such as a bedtime story, or a few minutes together at the end of each day when you tell your children 2-3 positive things they did that day.
- Make sure to listen when your children want to tell you something – this can help if you can’t set aside regular time each day
- Schedule a time for special activities with your children, without their sibling with autism, such as going to a movie.
- Set up a trusted babysitter to look after your child with ASD for a day or weekend, then you can spend a longer period with your other children.
By making these adjustments, your other children will feel that they’re also special to you. In addition, they will understand the situation more and more as they get older and be less likely to feel resentful towards their sibling.
Educate your children about autism in a way they can understand. Here are some areas to consider:
- First, find out what they already know and answer their questions in simple and age appropriate manner.
- Be prepared to explain things more than once.
- It is ok to tell young children that their sibling can not do something because he/she hasn’t learned how to or just doesn’t understand because of their autism.
- Encourage your children to be patient and understand that their sibling will have difficult days and that they can be a big help to them.
Manage the negative feelings
Your other children might have negative feelings about how they’re being treated as they are learning and adjusting to their sibling’s ASD. Feelings of hurt or resentment may appear. The following are some strategies to help them with their emotions:
- Acknowledge and be aware of your children’s feelings. You may hear your child say, “I hate playing with Johnny, he takes my toys”. You could respond, “I know, that must be really frustrating”.
- Communicate with them about their feelings in a way that is non-judgmental. For example, you might say “I’m not bad at you, can you tell me what happened and why you are upset?”
- Work together to come up with some positive ways to deal with negative feelings. Sometimes it may be hard to say what they feel and they can draw or paint to express their feelings.
- Share your own feelings to help them understand that their feelings are normal. For example, you can say that it can sometimes be hard for you as well.
- Seek support for your typically developing children if needed..
Support and Resources
OAR’s Autism Sibling Support- initiative offers guidance for young children, teenagers, and parents on how to productively address the ups and downs that may arise for individuals who have a brother or sister with autism. https://researchautism.org/how-we-help/families/sibling-support/
Autism Society of America, in partnership with the Siblings of Autism is establishing a national sibling board that will advocate at the federal level on policies that impact those on the autism spectrum including siblings.
The Sibling Support Project (aka Sibshops)- Founded in 1990, the Sibling Support Project is the first national program dedicated to the life-long and ever-changing concerns of millions of brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental, and mental health concerns.
Autism Parenting magazine article: