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Autism Month: Fostering strong sibling relationships

Posted April 22, 2014

National Autism Network

Editor's Note: The National Autism Network is sharing information on Go Ask Mom this month, Natural Autism Month. Check the More on This section for more information from the Cary-based group, which provides online resources, including a HIPAA-secure social network, for the autism community.

Raising a child with autism can put a strain on the traditional family dynamic. Having a brother or a sister on the autism spectrum can affect a child in any number of ways. The special attention often required of children on the autism spectrum could cause the sibling to foster resentment towards their brother or sister.

On the other hand, children may become overly defensive of their loved one, protecting their special needs sibling from bullies and individuals who don’t understand the disorder. They may embrace their sibling’s diagnosis and work to assist them in their daily tasks.

Fortunately, there are ways to help shape this sibling relationship into one of love and support.

Educate Your Child

One of the most important things you can do to nurture the love between siblings affected by autism is to help your neuro-typical child to understand the disorder.

Before explaining the intricacies of the disorder, ask your child to divulge what they know about the disorder such as: What their brother’s or sister’s strengths and weaknesses are; why they require special attention; and how the disorder may cause his or her mental growth to be stunted through the years.

You should adjust the topics of conversation based on the age of your children. For children at a young age, provide simple explanations for unusual behavior, like “he hasn’t learned how to talk, yet.” Older children can be educated to learn more about the underlying causes of the disorder and the types of treatment involved. In addition to talking with your child, you can instruct your child about the disorder by visiting autism websites, watching informational videos and movies, or even by letting them accompany you to a support group meeting when they are of a certain age.

Discuss ways that they can be supportive and help their sibling with certain tasks around the house and in public. After you feel like they have a handle on what autism is and how it affects their sibling, ask them how it makes them feel personally.

Understand that your child may need some time and space to process these things. Talk to your child often about their sibling’s diagnosis and encourage them to express any questions and feelings they may have, good or bad.

Tips for Turning Stress and Frustration into Support

Having a sibling with autism can cause frustration and stress for a child. While understanding the disorder can help to alleviate some of the frustrations that will occur, there are bound to be instances that cause bouts of these feelings and knowing how to cope is critical.

Children may harbor feelings of frustration and stress from not being able to socially communicate with their sibling, not being able to control the actions of bullies and others who treat their sibling differently, or jealousy stemming from the fact that their sibling receives the majority of the attention.

To help quell these feelings, include all of your children in your activities whenever it is appropriate, while making time for one-on-one, individualized attention for each child. Attempt to put forth the same amount of effort with your typically developing child by rewarding their accomplishments in the same way you would your child with autism.

Additionally, siblings must feel that they and their personal belongings are safe from their sibling on the spectrum when parents are not around. Discuss strategies to implement when your child is exhibiting aggressive behaviors and keep private or prized items belonging to a sibling in places that are not within the reach of curious hands.

Sadly, children with autism are often the target of bullies at schools and it is not uncommon for them to draw nasty expressions from onlookers in public. Explain to your neuro-typical child that not everybody understands what autism is and they will often treat people on the spectrum differently because of it.

You can prepare your child by presenting them with potential situations and discussing various “exit strategies” for him or her to use when in a difficult situation. Teach your child the steps to take if they witness their sibling become the victim of bullying. It will help if your child is able to communicate with other siblings who are going through the same types of adjustments.

A good way to do this is through community resources or support groups such as “sibshops.” Sibshops allow children on the autism spectrum to interact, share, and discuss their relationship with special needs siblings through a mix of games and discussion activities. SibShops are available across the nation. They can also visit our Sibling Support Forum to connect with other siblings and share their experiences and learn from others.

Relationship Building

Research has shown that while children tend to resent siblings with autism due to the amount of attention they receive and their perception that “the world revolves around them,” they also exhibit a stronger than usual bond with their sibling.

However, these bonds are not likely to form overnight and may require some influence from you as parents. It is important to treat all of your children fairly and do not grant your child on the autism spectrum special treatment because he or she doesn't “understand.” You should not tolerate unruly behavior like hitting or biting from your child on the spectrum, if you punish their siblings for similar actions.

Do not force your child into being involved in activities with their sibling on the spectrum in ways that they do not wish to participate. For example, your neuro-typical daughter may not want to engage in video games with your son on the spectrum. Conversely, you should not force your child on the spectrum to engage in certain family activities such as sitting through a school play if they are not up to the task.

Encourage your child to support their sibling with autism by helping with homework, helping to clean their room, picking out outfits that don’t aggravate any sensory issues, setting the table, or doing a puzzle together. Take things slowly when grouping children with and without autism. Partake in some activities as a whole family through game night or movie night to help create that initial sibling bond, but eventually work your way up to solely sibling interaction.

Find activities in which they all can engage, such as building forts, blowing bubbles, watching movies, playing with stuffed animals or trains, playground activities, finger painting, etc. You can even get creative and make everyday, mundane activities into a game. For example, letting them share in unloading the groceries or a race to see who can place their dirty clothes into the washer the fastest.

f your child uses a tablet device, then it may be beneficial for them to engage in social stories together, so that one sibling can play the role of storyteller explaining how to act and react in certain situations. Encourage your child to carry some responsibility for their sibling by helping around the house, but also know that is important for them to have free time to be their selves. As children grow, they will come to understand their sibling with autism and often have been found to be more caring and compassionate than the average child.

Finally, it isn't easy being the sibling of someone on the spectrum and children adjust to it in different ways. There are a number of challenges that accompany growing up with a brother or sister on the spectrum, but it is overcoming those challenges that make the experience that much more rewarding.

A number of articles in the National Autism Network News Feed chronicle the joy and pride siblings on the autism spectrum experience when they witness them earn their degree or get their first job. We ask that you please share your stories of the challenges and success as brothers, sisters, and individuals affected by autism on our Sibling Support Forum.


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