Siblings of Those with Autism

Research indicates that the majority of brothers and sisters of children with autism cope well with their experiences. That does not mean, however, that they do not encounter special challenges in learning how to deal with a sibling who has autism or a related disorder.

With more children being diagnosed with autism, and many within a family where several children are neuro-typical, it’s raised some questions on how these children feel about their sibling with autism taking more time and attention from their parents.

Explaining Autism to Children

It is important that your children know about autism and that the information you give them is appropriate for their developmental age. From early childhood, they need explanations that help them understand the behaviors that are of concern to them. For the preschool, child this may be as simple as “Rick doesn’t know how to talk,” while for the adolescent, it may involve a conversation about the possible genetics of autism.

Another key to success is to remember that children need to be told about autism again and again as they grow up.

Resentment

Siblings often get angry, resentful, and frustrated that their lives are changed from “normal” because of a child with Autism. They have a natural reaction of wanting more attention and therefore find ways to act out.

Sometimes our children will not want to discuss their resentment, because they know it’s wrong and feel guilty about those feelings. But while they may not be expected, they are still very real feelings that need to be discussed.

Make sure your children understand the impact that special needs place on everyone’s life, including your own. They need to know what you are experiencing as well, to put their feelings in perspective.

Becoming the Primary Caregiver

Parents often assume that their oldest child will be willing to take care of their sibling once they are gone. The sibling may resent this assumption. The time to talk about the responsibilities and how it will affect their lives is early on: they need to know when they are in their early teens what is expected. It helps them have that responsibility in mind, and perhaps give them the chance to decide if they want to be a care-giver, or just a support.

Your adult children need to understand the financial plans you have made, the care arrangements in place, and your own expectations for them. Having these difficult conversations will ultimately be a gift to your adult children who will know that they can honor your wishes.

Feelings of Isolation

A problem often reported to clinicians by siblings is a sense of isolation. An ideal means of combating this isolation is to help the sibling connect with other siblings of children with autism. Peer support groups for siblings of children with autism and related disorders are becoming more available.

Other Sources of Stress for Siblings

Some other potential issues for siblings of those with autism may include:

  • Embarrassment around peers; jealousy regarding amount of time parents spend with their brother/sister
  • Frustration over not being able to engage or get a response from their brother/sister
  • Being the target of aggressive behaviors
  • Trying to make up for the deficits of their brother/sister
  • Concern regarding their parents stress and grief

The best way to address these potential issues is open and honest communication with the sibling concerned and making sure that they feel heard.

While growing up as the sibling of someone with autism can be difficult, most siblings cope very well. It is important to remember that while having a sibling with autism or any other disability is a challenge to a child, it is not insurmountable. Most children handle the challenge effectively, and many of them respond with surprising amounts of love, grace and humor.