Finding Support for the Siblings of Children with Autism
Siblings of children with autism are in a unique position and may not share their brothers’ or sisters’ social cognitive challenges. Yet, in many ways, they have special needs of their own.
People who have siblings with autism are faced with overwhelming challenges, responsibilities, and emotions when addressing their siblings’ needs and usually well before they’re able to develop appropriate coping strategies their parents may use. As a result, we need to support siblings to ensure they’re informed, understood, and respected while they’re learning how to be compassionate advocates for their siblings on the spectrum.
Of all the family members touched by ASD, siblings usually have the longest relationship with an affected brother or sister across their lifespan. These future advocates, potential caretakers, and lifelong friends require more support and attention. There are many support resources available to not only validate siblings’ feelings and provide a sense of comfort but also offer practical and age-appropriate guidance on how to address some of the difficulties they’re likely to experience.
Here are some tips to support the emotional well-being of siblings of all ages:
Set aside time just for siblings.
Foster strong communication skills.
Communication is essential for strong relationships. Siblings of children with autism may have difficulty expressing their feelings and they may feel too ashamed or embarrassed to tell their parents that the sibling is upsetting them. The failure to communicate and resolve the issue may lead to resentment.
Encourage the siblings to share their concerns and feelings with you without judgement. Use observations to facilitate the discussion. For instance, you might say, “I notice that Jonah didn’t want to play trucks with you. That must have been upsetting.” Encouraging the sibling to communicate can help them understand that these feelings are normal. Ongoing communication also provides you with opportunities to resolve minor problems before they escalate into major meltdowns.
It’s OK to be angry.
Even the most loving and understanding of siblings will sometimes feel mad, humiliated, or resentful of a brother or sister with special needs. The desire to have a “normal” family that looks like any other is a natural part of child development. So are sibling rivalries and arguments!
As parents, we often emphasize the positive to paint our children with autism in the rosiest light and can feel extra-protective when sibling quarrels flare-up. It may seem as though giving your “sib” space to openly vent their frustration will encourage negative feelings, making matters worse. However, these difficult conversations can be great opportunities to educate siblings about why and how autism affects behavior, helping them to build compassion and empathy.
Your acknowledgment that life with autism is sometimes difficult – for your child and you – will help your “sib” to feel supported rather than guilty for their emotions.
Make sure others acknowledge your typically-developing child.
A child with autism may be the first thing well-meaning friends, teachers, and neighbors ask parents about. Siblings may come to feel less interesting or important to those in the family’s periphery, simply because their interests and activities are more predictable. Young children may wonder why therapists visit their homes, offering toys, games, and special attention to their brother or sister.
As siblings grow older, they may resent being left out of conversations about their brother’s or sister’s progress, or their plans for the future; after all, their own lives may be impacted by the decisions a sibling’s support team has made! Ensuring siblings receive a special acknowledgment by those involved with your family can go a long way toward helping them feel positive about themselves and their role.
Find a sibling support program.
As the autism community has grown, so have opportunities for brothers and sisters to connect and make friends with others who have “been there.” Just as parents often find that the most meaningful support comes from other families who share similar experiences, children too can benefit tremendously from having a safe space to share their feelings with other siblings.
The Behavior Exchange can help you find in-person and virtual support programs for your neurotypical child. A quick internet search can also lead you to great resources for parents and autistic siblings of all ages, like the “Autism Sibling Support” guides from the Organization for Autism Research (OAR).