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Siblings Are People Too!

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If you have two children and one of them is on the autism spectrum, there is a very high likelihood you are just as concerned about your typically developing child as you are about your child with special needs. How do I make sure Andrew* (*hypothetical " neurotypical" child) gets the attention he needs when all my time seems to be devoted to Jimmy** (**hypothetical child on the autism spectrum)? How do I help Andrew understand Jimmy’s disability? Will Andrew resent having a brother on the autism spectrum?

These are all questions that parents ponder. As a sibling with a brother on the autism spectrum, I can tell you that these concerns are important.

There is huge variability within the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience. No two kids on the autism spectrum are the same. No two parents experience their child’s ASD in the same way. No two siblings have the exact same childhood or exact same experiences with their special sibling. You are the expert on what works for your family and your family dynamic. The following remarks are simply some suggestions that may help you on your journey.

Siblings have needs too. You are going to invest a lot of time in Jimmy because he will probably need it. It is important to remember that just because Jimmy needs more support, Andrew does not magically need less. Andrew will need time that is especially reserved for him with his parents. This can be as simple as reading a book together for 20 minutes before bedtime every night, tossing a ball outside before or after dinner, or going for a walk together with the family dog. The important thing is that the activity is something Andrew enjoys and is something he can count on. No matter how busy things get with Jimmy, Andrew needs to know that he is a priority to his parents.

Do things as a family. It is important to do things as a family both in the home and outside of it. One of the great societal advances of the past forty years is that individuals with developmental disabilities are becoming more visible and more included in society. That is something to take advantage of and celebrate. Find things to do that both of the kids will like, or choose an activity that caters to one child’s interests with the understanding that the next time the activity will be the other’s choice. Go to the park, go to an indoor play center, go out to dinner at a casual restaurant, or go to a movie. Jimmy may need breaks. You may need to make adjustments and accommodations to create pleasant enough experiences for everyone involved. Your best-laid plans may epically fail. That’s life… You don’t know until you try! The first time our family went to a movie together, my sibling lasted through the previews and fifteen minutes of the movie before he had enough. Our dad and my brother left the theater and headed next door to wander around the hardware store. This was one of his favorite activities. At the end of the day, I was happy because I saw a movie with my mom, my brother was happy because he visited his favorite store, and our parents were proud they had survived the experience.

Divide and conquer! Sometimes it is healthy to do things as a family; and sometimes, it is in everyone’s best interests to divide and conquer. If Jimmy always needs you to be watching him, maybe it is best if one parent stays home with Jimmy while the other takes Andrew to his soccer game and stays to watch. If Jimmy has several hours of therapy scheduled on a Saturday and Andrew cannot stand being dragged along to one more therapy session, arrange for Andrew to spend some time at a relative’s or close friend’s house. As a parent, try as you might, you will find that you cannot be everything to everyone. It is wise for you to learn early that it is ok to ask for help when you need it. Friends and family members are usually happy to help!

Talk to your child about his sibling on the autism spectrum. Andrew may have questions about his brother. He may ask you about Jimmy’s behaviors, what ASD is, and why his brother does not like the same things he does. Andrew may admit that his brother sometimes embarrasses him, and he may complain that you hold him to a different standard than you do Jimmy. Having honest, open, and developmentally appropriate conversations with Andrew will hopefully help him develop his relationship with his brother. It is important for a parent to recognize Andrew’s feelings and tell him it is ok that he sometimes feels upset or frustrated. "Typical" siblings do not like each other 100% of the time, so why should a "typical" sibling have to like his sibling on the autism spectrum 100% of the time? The sibling relationship is a "work in progress." Another important thing to remember is that you are your child’s first teacher. Andrew will model how you act towards Jimmy. He will mimic the language you use to talk about Jimmy. It is important to be cognizant of this, even when you are having a bad day and are at the end of your rope.

Seek outside support for the sibling. In addition to talking to you about their feelings, most children benefit from meeting other children that have siblings with developmental disabilities including ASD. There is a program called Sibshops, which brings together these brothers and sisters of children with special needs. Sibshops are generally for six- to twelve-year-olds and consist of a mix of silly and fun games and discussion activities. It is a judgment-free environment, full of other children who "get it." Sometimes, siblings really benefit from knowing they are not alone and that there are other children who share the same experiences and emotions. Check out the Sibshop website to find a group closest to your neighborhood. Additionally, there are times that siblings could benefit from meeting one-on-one with a professional counselor. Many counselors with experience working with siblings can be found in the Resource Directory contained within the CAR Autism Roadmap™.

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Additional Resources:

Suggested Books:

  • My Brother Charlie, by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete, pictures by Shane W. Evans (2010). Charlie’s brain works in a special way. It’s harder for him to make friends. Or show his true feelings. Or stay safe." His sister tells us, for everything that Charlie can’t do well, there are plenty more things that he’s good at. He knows the names of all the American presidents. He knows stuff about airplanes. And he can even play the piano better than anyone he knows. Actress and national autism spokesperson Holly Robinson Peete collaborates with her daughter on this book based on Holly’s 10-year-old son, who has autism.
The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.