How to Best Support Siblings of Children with Autism?


There is a continual tension between the needs of the child with autism and those of other children.

Bringing up children with autism places great demand on parents and the family as a whole. The family will be expected to adapt to a new lifestyle to accommodate their child with special needs. One example of such demands is the lack of time to satisfy everyone’s wishes. Specifically, the time involved in meeting the needs of a child with autism may leave caregivers with little time for their other children. As a result, there is a continual tension between the needs of the child with autism and those of other children.


Fortunately, most research indicates that the majority of brothers and sisters of children with autism cope well with their experiences. However, that does not mean that they do not encounter challenges when dealing with a sibling with special needs. These are some stressors that are common among siblings of children with autism:

  • Feelings of shame around peers

  • Jealousy with regards to the amount of attention they get from parents compared to their brother/sister

  • Frustration over not being able to interact meaningfully with their sibling with autism

  • Being the target of aggressive behaviors

  • Concerns over their parents’ stress when caring for their brother/sister with autism

  • Stress over their responsibility in future caregiving

As it can be stressful to have a sibling with special needs, it is crucial that these siblings of children with autism learn to manage these challenges to make their childhood easier and to develop them into resilient adults, where the support that they receive will serve them immediately and in all the years ahead. Hence, this article offers suggestions to parents about ways to support other children in the family to cope gracefully and effectively with the experience of having a sibling with autism.


Explaining autism to children

It is important for siblings of children with autism to understand what autism is all about and that the information given to them is at an appropriate developmental age. From early childhood, they need explanations that help them understand the behaviors that are of concern to them. For the preschool-age child, this may be as simple as “Jonathan doesn’t know how to talk,” while for the adolescent, it may involve a conversation about the possible genetics of autism. Parents can model and encourage open and honest conversations with other children in the family so that they can feel comfortable asking questions and expressing the frustrations they face.


Also, parents can adjust the information to their child’s age and understanding. For example, very young children are most concerned about unusual behaviors that may puzzle and scare them. An older child will have concerns of a more interpersonal nature, such as how to explain autism to his/her friends. Teenagers may be concerned about the role they will play in future care for their siblings with autism and how to care for them in the future. Every age has its needs, and parents have to listen carefully to their child’s immediate concerns and respond accordingly.


Having designated special time

While it is good that families ensure their child with autism is a fully integrated member of the family, it is important to remember that their siblings need to feel special too. Families are encouraged to have a regular, separate time for the children in their family who do not have autism. It may be one evening a week, a Sunday morning, or even 15 mins before bedtime each night. These designated special times can even be going out for an ice-cream treat or letting them pick a movie one evening. These gestures will remind them that they are just as loved and important as the child with special needs.


Helping your child form a relationship

Because of the nature of autism, it is understandably difficult for a young child to form a satisfying relationship with a brother or sister on the spectrum. For example, your child’s attempts to play with her autistic brother are probably rebuffed because of his lack of play skills, or it may typically end abruptly because of his explosive tantrums. Hence, it is not surprising that young children may become discouraged by the reactions they encounter and seek playmates elsewhere.


The good news is that young children can be taught simple skills that will enable them to engage their brother or sister in playful interactions. Research has shown that siblings can learn basic teaching strategies to engage their brother or sister with autism. These strategies can include things like:

  • Making sure they have their sibling’s attention

  • Giving simple instructions

  • Praising good play

One research study showed videotapes made before and after the children learned these skills and have shown that after training, they played together more and seemed much happier than they had been prior to training. Therefore, teaching simple play skills can help create more positive play experiences, which can deepen the bond between siblings.


Conclusion

It is definitely challenging to ensure that your other children do not feel neglected while trying to raise children with special needs. However, these stresses can be greatly reduced if parents equip themselves with better strategies to care for the siblings of children with autism.


Written by: Clarissa