One of the most important issues a family faces in dealing with autism is that of siblings. Often, parents who have to care for a child with autism are met with extraordinary time constraints, leaving little time to give other children in the family what they need. It’s a seemingly never-ending cycle of guilt, frustration and exhaustion.
Although you need to struggle to meet the demands of your child with autism, there are others in the family to consider. How to cope with the situation is often one of the most stressful parts of autism. Often, in our conferences and seminars, the issue of siblings and autism, and balancing life at home is the biggest hot-button topic and most widely discussed.
How To Explain Autism to Siblings
It is our belief that children are a bit smarter than we tend to think. Your autistic child’s sibling more often than not knows that something “just isn’t right.” This often translates into feelings of guilt or responsibility. Children tend to internalize these feelings and blame themselves. The best way to handle that is to be open and honest, and tell your child the truth. If you feel your child is old enough to even partially understand that your autistic child is “special” or different from other children, do so, but give the child only as much information as you feel he or she can handle. One way you may wish to explain autism to your child is to say “autism makes your brother/sister special, it makes him/her think differently from most people.”
Your child may have difficulty in understanding why their sibling gets to do things that they can’t do, such as spend time with a therapist. Making special time between you and your typical child or children is important. Schedule “Mommy & Me” times where the two of you play games, color, or participate in enjoyable activities together. Make sure your child knows that you are available for them to have your own “special time.” Get a sitter, if you can, or ask your spouse to stay home while you take your other child out, or simply hide away together in a room in the house to have your special time. It makes them feel special, and not left out, and it will ease your mind considerably.
Teaching younger siblings about autism is a good thing. Often, these children are more understanding and accepting than we think. They will find ways to communicate and play with your other child. Make it part of your child’s therapy plan to include his or her siblings in activities. We even suggest that your child’s therapy team make a goal for appropriate sibling interaction. This will not only help your autistic child in communication and interaction, it will help your typical child learn how to interact. Often, siblings pick up on many techniques and cues from therapists, and become what we refer to as “little therapists.” Remember, as always, necessity is the mother of invention. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Your children will FIND a way to communicate together if the typical child(ren) are included in some of the therapy sessions.
As your children mature, some issues that tend to crop up in typical teens are anger, embarrassment and guilt. Anger at having a brother or sister with a disability that forces them to make sacrifices, embarrassment toward their sibling’s behavior, and guilt from being typical and fear of independence due to feelings of guilt.
The teenage years are difficult, that’s a fact. Add an autistic sibling to the mix and you have a difficult situation on your hands. Most typical teens experience the “all about me” stage during their teenage years and can begin to show resentment or anger toward the family situation. Our advice is, first and foremost, to realize that this is a difficult journey for your typical child as well, and adolescence is an incredibly difficult time. Be calm and understanding, and try to realize that this is very normal. Second, keep reiterating to your typical child that autism was not a choice, was nobody’s fault, and that you are and will always remain a family.
If your child continues to feel angry or depressed, and says things like “I wish my brother/sister were dead,” they may be in need of more help than you can provide. You may want to consider family or psychological counseling for your typical child to help him/her deal with these feelings. Often, a non-biased outside source can provide tremendous help and insight and validate your child’s feelings.