No matter how much we would like to, we cannot choose our families or the way in which we are raised. We are indelibly shaped by our environments, our families, and our experiences in a way that makes us who we are. Each piece, person, and interaction is important and is a part of who we become. In families where one or more children is diagnosed with Autism, many times the “typical” sibling feels left out or left behind. Because their sibling needs extra help, support, therapies, time with mom and dad, understanding, diets, etc. the other child(ren) may feel as if their needs are less important.
While all children experience fears, anxieties, and a variety of influences as a child; growing up in a family with one or more siblings with Autism or other special needs, these children tend to experience things differently than those who are raised in a family where all the children are typically developing. These experiences have an influence on how they think, feel, view themselves, what they are anxious about, and how they view and treat others.
There are many positive aspects to a sibling growing up with a child who has special needs: these individuals tend to experience more feelings of compassion and express more empathy towards others; they understand the unique differences of everyone around them and tend to be less quick to judge when someone is not like them; many grow up to work in human services and want to help others; they grow to understand that a child’s “bad” behavior may actually be communicating another desire they are not able to express otherwise; and they also tend to understand that even if someone is expressing anti-social tendencies, they still need someone to love and play with them. Some negative aspects might include: emulating the negative behavior seen receiving attention from their sibling with autism; feelings of low self esteem or self worth due to the lack of attention they receive in comparison; feelings of jealousy, resentment and embarrassment; frustration from the lack of response from their sibling; feelings of being attacked physically as well as verbally by their sibling; feeling as if they have to “make up” for the behavior of their sibling; as well as lacking a typical role model to interact with at home possibly leading to inappropriate behavior outside the home.
Brothers and sisters are especially important in the lives of children with Autism for many reasons: siblings will most likely be in their lives longer than anyone else; siblings provide constant direction as typically developing role-models; and they are a consistent source of social interaction. As a parent, it is really important to encourage positive play between siblings, from a very young age. Initially it is just a matter of teaching them simple and enjoyable activities to help them interact together, that will grow over time into longer more complex interactions. Also, teaching the typical sibling how to “teach” play to their autistic sibling gives them a feeling of responsibility and feeling of importance in their sibling’s life. Feelings of Jealousy and competition are common with all siblings, but it is always important to notice and act on these feelings, teaching the children how to successfully cope when these feelings arise. Each child needs to feel as if they are just as important, individually as well as together with their sibling, even if many times it is easier to give in to the child with autism in order to avoid a “melt-down” or other difficult behavior. Parents need to make sure all children feel important and their needs are being met. In order to do this, it is important for parents to ensure quality time with each child individually, even if it is merely being in attendance at their sporting events, reading to them before bedtime, taking them on a one-on-one trip to the store with you; the activity is not important, but making the child feel as if they have your attention focused solely on them and that they are important is the main goal. Finding a sibling support group for your typical child is very important as well, giving them a channel to feel as if they are not alone. Also, finding outlets where typical children along with their autistic sibling can participate together is another great solution; joining support groups, family hikes, and playful swimming time, playing tag, or dancing together to music are all lucrative interactions that will encourage quality time with everyone together.