Autism is a difficult but rewarding journey for parents, but what about their other, typically developing children? The siblings of children on the autism spectrum play a very important role in the development of their autistic siblings.
Remember siblings are just kids too.
Being a sibling of a child with Autism can be a heavy burden for any child to bear. Parents expect that a brother or sister of a child with Autism will understand that their sibling is different. They expect them to understand that their sibling will receive extra attention and more accommodations than them and just be okay with it. This is hard for any child, probably more so than parents realize. By asking a sibling to constantly modify their behavior to accommodate their Autistic sibling, they are being asked to take on an adult role that kids wouldn’t normally be asked to take on. It’s important that parents both acknowledge this and remember that they are just kids.
The reality is that a sibling of a child with Autism will play a different role in their brother or sister’s life than they would if he or she was neurotypical. They will never be able to relate to them the same way that they would a neurotypical sibling. There is no way around this. However, most often parents don’t realize how challenging that is actually for a child to bear. Just like as a parent, you are missing out on certain experiences with your Autistic sibling, so are they. They will watch how other kids relate to their siblings and play with them and wish that they were able to have that with their brother or sister.
Instead, they will always play a bit of a role of caretaker for their sibling. Most days they will do it enthusiastically. But, it will be challenging for them too. They are just children too. While they may understand that their brother or sister will get special attention from therapists coming to their house, they will likely be a little jealous and be left out.
They may get the fact that on family movie night, their Autistic sibling will always get to pick the movie or that there may only be one restaurant that the family can go to because it’s the only one their brother or sister will eat at. But, they may start to resent it.
It is imperative that as a parent you keep an online line of communication with your neurotypical children. Make sure that they know they can always come to you to tell you how hard having a brother or sister on the Autism spectrum can be. When they are making sacrifices for their Autistic sibling, acknowledge them and say thank you. Never just take it for granted.
Finally, be sure to set aside time and even whole days where they get to make all of the choices and you get to do whatever they want. It is so important that they have this private time with you- ideally one on one without any other siblings being present.
As a parent, you probably have high expectations for your typical children to adapt their behavior to accommodate their Autistic siblings. But, remember they are just kids. It’s harder for them to do this than it is for adults. Don’t ask them to do more than they are capable of.
Siblings can be a huge resource and they also bear a huge burden as well.
One of the biggest fears and questions that parents have is what will happen to their child with Autism when they won’t be around one day. When you have a neurotypical child, that can take a burden off of your shoulders. You know that after you are gone, your Autistic child will always have his brother and sister to take care of them.
Here’s the hard truth. When the burden of what will happen to your child is lifted from your shoulders, it is being put on your siblings’ shoulders. Siblings of children with Autism always feel responsible for their Autistic brothers or sister. Even if it is not said, they intrinsically know that they carry that burden of always taking care of their brother or sister.
This can be very challenging for them and it is important that parents give them the ability to share how this makes them feel. It is also important for parents to understand that they will have lives of their own one day. They may want to get married, start a career and move away. They may be unwilling to assume the role of caregiver for their sibling. As challenging as this is, parents cannot thrust this role on their children.
Doing so will cause resentment and can harm your relationship with your neurotypical sibling as well as their relationship with their Autistic sibling. However, the good news is, when children feel like they have a choice, they will almost always want to take care of their Autistic sibling. But they must feel like they have a choice.
It’s just as important that siblings learn about Autism as it is for parents.
Neurotypical siblings need to learn how to interact with their Autistic brothers and sisters. By understanding what Autism is and how it affects their siblings, they will have a better understanding of how to interact with their siblings.
Both your neurotypical sibling and Autistic sibling will want to interact with each other. However, in order for that to happen the neurotypical sibling will need to learn how to interact in a different way. Learning things like keeping the language simple, the types of games and activities that their Autistic sibling will be able to do and what sensory differences are will make it far more likely that a neurotypical sibling can have a successful interaction.
By waiting to explain Autism to a sibling, you are denying them the ability to understand what is happening.
When a child gets an Autism diagnosis, everything changes. One day you are a parent and the next day you are a parent of a special needs child. This can feel like an enormous burden to bear and you may feel like by not telling your other children, you are saving them from having to bear that burden.
The truth is though, that they are bearing the burden anyway. They still may not get to go places because their sibling is having a tantrum, they still may never get a turn to pick out what they want to watch on television and they still may be the target of aggressive behaviors.
But, if they aren’t told what Autism is, they may not understand why. They know their brother or sister is different and they know that their role of being a sibling is different but they don’t really understand what that means.
Knowing what is going on with their Autistic sibling makes it so much easier to cope with. Just like you have questions as a parent, your other children do as well. They deserve answers. Understanding what is happening will be so powerful and you will find they are so much more eager to help.
Schedule alone time and special events for siblings. Some resentment is inevitable.
Spending time alone with all of your children is important and healthy for any family. However, when a family has a child with Autism this is even more important. It has been stated many times in this book, the most difficult thing for Autism siblings is that they may start to resent their Autistic siblings.
One of the most effective ways to make sure that this does not happen is to do a weekly “date” alone with each of your children. During this time, they should be able to do anything that they want. Use this time to let them know how much you value them and appreciate them. It may seem small but it will mean the world to your child.
It’s important to get “Autism siblings” around other “Autism siblings” so they can form a relationship with someone who is going through what they are.
One of the things that siblings say the most is that they feel like nobody understands what they are going through and that the hardest part of having a sibling with Autism is that they always have to pretend that they are okay. There are certain things that a sibling of a child with Autism goes through that only another sibling can understand.
Knowing that they are not alone and that other people are going through similar things can be invaluable to them. Just hearing and knowing that someone else understands can make it so much easier. They will be able to have conversations and create meaningful and deep connections that can only come from having relationships with peers that are going through something similar to them.
Sometimes siblings can bear the brunt of challenging behaviors and they have to be taught how to deal with them.
One of the most difficult things that I see siblings with Autism have to deal with especially at a young age is when their siblings direct aggressive behaviors at them. Many times, I see kids with Autism pull their sibling’s hair, push or scratch them when they get upset. During these times, siblings have to be taught that their brother or sister does not mean to hurt them. They also have to understand how to respond.
As a parent, you cannot expect them to just ignore it and pretend that it is ok. Because it is not ok. However, they cannot get aggressive back because that will make the situation worse.
As a family, you must have a plan for what you will do when these situations occur. Siblings should have a safe place that they can go until their Autistic sibling calms down. As a parent, it is always your job to calm down your child, even if the behaviors become redirected at you. That responsibility should never be passed to your sibling.
You must always have a family meeting when this occurs to give your child a chance to unpack what happened and let them express how they feel. Even if it seems like a minor incident to you, it may not feel minor for your child.
Always make sure your child can come to talk to you about how they feel
As a parent, you are probably struggling so much with your child’s Autism. Hearing that your child is also struggling with their siblings Autism may seem like more than you can bear. It may seem easier to just not talk about it. However, your child may need to talk about it.
As hard as it may be, your child must feel like they can come to you and tell you how they feel. You may not always like hearing what they have to say, but it is important that they feel like they can come to you.
When they do, it is your job to simply listen. Your only response should be something along the lines of I hear you. Never invalidate how they feel or explain to them how and why they should feel a different way. All they need from you is to just listen.
This can be especially hard for men who by nature want to fix things. At this time, your child doesn’t need anything to be fixed, they just need you to listen.
The benefits of being an Autism sibling
In this book, we have pointed out many of the struggles that an Autism sibling goes through. The good news is, having a sibling with Autism has its benefits as well. It was stated that your typical child will never have a typical relationship with an Autistic sibling and that is true but it can also be even better. There is a special bond that exists between them that cannot exist between neurotypical siblings.
Being a sibling of a child with Autism teaches kids valuable lessons at a very young age. They learn to be kinder, more compassionate people. You will find that they always treat others with respect and are just better humans. They will always stand up for the person being bullied and will always accept people’s differences. As a parent, they will make you really proud.