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Autism and Siblings: Creating a Positive Dynamic

Autism and Siblings: Creating a Positive Dynamic

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Updated on Jul 1, 2012

Learning that your child's autistic can be devastating for any parent. The diagnosis affects not only your little one, but the rest of the family as well. So how can you give your kid with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) what he needs without ignoring your other children?

Recently, the CDC reported that 1 in 88 children are autistic. In addition to more individual diagnoses, these numbers imply that more and more families will be dealing with the disorder—requiring adjustments to the family dynamic.

The relationship between siblings can be particularly tricky, especially since a child with ASD can consume a lot of your time and energy as a parent. If you have a child with ASD and one unaffected by the disorder, the sibling without ASD may feel left out. Conversely, an ASD child may struggle to connect with his siblings and feel isolated in his own right. To help your kids avoid these issues, use these guidelines below to help each sibling feel special:

  • Helping hand. Let your child without ASD know that she can play a special role in helping her autistic sibling. "Siblings can be encouraged to include their sib with ASD...to join in their play with toys, and to teach how to play with a toy by using it appropriately and encouraging the affected sib to try the same thing," says Dr. Rhea Paul, Founder and Director of the Speech-Language Pathology Department of Sacred Heart University and an expert in autism spectrum disorders. "For children with ASD who talk, sibs can be encouraged to ask the child simple questions and insist on an answer before play can continue, to sing favorite songs with them and read or look at picture books together."
  • Listen up. For a sibling unaffected by ASD, it can feel confusing, upsetting, or embarrassing to have a sibling diagnosed with the disorder. By acknowledging these feelings, you'll show your child without ASD these emotions are completely normal. Encourage her to express herself in a constructive way by keeping a journal, drawing pictures, or speaking with a counselor who specializes in ASD. Research online for resources that you can use to help your non-autistic child cope.
  • Don't tolerate teasing. Establish a zero-tolerance rule for put-downs, name-calling, and bullying. Having your kids respect one another at home sets a firm foundation for how they'll behave at school and in public. "The most important thing to teach unaffected children is not to tease or provoke a child who is different, but instead to make him feel that he is welcome when he is ready/able to play," says Dr. Paul. In addition to preventing the obvious teasing, help your non-ASD child avoid unintentionally provoking her brother by pressuring him to participate in activities he has no interest in.
  • Offer resources. When your non-ASD kid is old enough, provide her with materials that promote the understanding of ASD. Movies, books, and websites can enable her to empathize with her sibling, and explain to others why her brother might be acting a certain way. Even if your kid's too young to fully grasp what autism means, start an age-appropriate conversation anyway. Invite her to doctor's appointments, so she can better understand how her sibling is "different" and what to do about it. Additionally, let her know that you're always there for her should she have questions or need your help understanding something.
  • One-on-one time. Give each of your children several uninterrupted hours of "mommy and me" time every week. Choose activities that promote conversation, such as walking the dog, having a picnic, or shopping. "It is important for typical siblings to have some time of their own, to have a special place to keep favorite objects safe from the affected siblings if necessary, and to get some private time with parents," says Dr. Paul. "Making sure the unaffected sib gets to be a little kid, is important, too."
  • Take trips. Escaping on a family vacation gives your kids time to get one another without the added pressure of school or friends watching from the sidelines. "Not every moment has to be spent teaching or learning," reminds Dr. Paul. "It's just as important to find time for the affected child and his/her siblings to just be themselves." Giving your children the chance to bond away from others will help them develop a close relationship.
  • Reach out. It's okay if your unaffected child's frustrated that her family isn't like the families of friends she visits. To help her from feeling isolated, reach out to other families with ASD and get together with them from time to time. Being able to connect with other brothers and sisters in the same position helps your kids see that they're just as "normal" as every other sibling pair out there. Don't be surprised to find multiple diagnoses in one family; a 2011 study published in Pediatrics found that infants with an older autistic sibling have a near 19 percent risk for developing the disorder. To help find families you can relate to in your area, ask your doctor or use the resource guide offered by Autism Speaks.

A rise in autistic spectrum disorder means a rise in families affected by ASD, and an added pressure between siblings when one's diagnosed with the disorder. Using the tips above can help your pair of siblings overcome the roadblocks autism might put in their way, and navigate a relationship that brings out the best in them both.

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