Having a child with ASD can make it difficult to find time for the needs of your other children. You might even be feeling guilty or anxious about how you’re doing. But don’t be too hard on yourself – there are some simple things you can do every day to nurture other children.
Explaining ASD to siblings
It’s a good idea to start explaining ASD to siblings as soon as you think they can understand, or as soon as they are old enough to notice their brother or sister is behaving differently. This helps children adjust to their sibling’s disability, and avoids mistaken ideas about ASD.
As children get older and are more able to understand, you will find they need more information and will ask more complicated questions about ASD.
How to explain ASD
- Find out what your children know already. Keep answers to any questions simple. Ask questions about your children’s feelings. Be prepared to explain things several times.
- Use language and ideas that suit your children’s age and understanding. Use basic terms or simple descriptions of ASD characteristics.
- It’s OK to tell very young children that their sibling ‘can’t do something’ because their sibling hasn’t learned how to or ‘doesn’t understand’.
What children know about ASD
What your children know about ASD is likely to depend on their age. Research surveying siblings (from 5-17 years) of children with ASD found that few knew much about their sibling’s ASD. This was even though some were familiar with ASD in general.
Children of different ages understand ASD in different ways. A five-year-old might see ASD as the reason why a sibling can’t write. A 17-year-old is more likely to see ASD as an obstacle to a sibling having a ‘normal life’.
Children sometimes have mistaken ideas about their sibling’s ASD. They might think ASD is something you can ‘catch’ like a cold. Younger children might even think that they have caused their sibling’s ASD through bad behaviour or bad thoughts. You can help them with these thoughts by talking with them and explaining things.
You might notice differences between how you parent your child with ASD and your other children. For example, you might feel you spend more time looking after your child with ASD. Just like your child with ASD, your other children need and will benefit from your everyday warmth and positive attention. You can help your typically developing children by:
- making special time for siblings
- encouraging closer relationships with their sibling with ASD
- trying to be fair
- setting up family roles and responsibilities
- managing any negative feelings.
Making special time for siblings
Siblings of children with ASD sometimes feel mum and dad already have ‘a lot on their plates’. So these children often don’t seek attention or talk about their own problems. To overcome this, you can:
- Set aside regular daily times for your children. It might be a bedtime story, or 10 minutes together to talk at the end of each day.
- Make time for special activities with your children, without their sibling with ASD. This could be taking your children to the swimming pool or a movie.
- Use a trusted babysitter or respite care to look after your child with ASD for a day or weekend. This way you can spend a longer period with your other children.
Encouraging closer relationships
Siblings of children with ASD generally feel positive about their brother or sister, but often their relationships are not as close as they could be. This might be because of the difficulties children with ASD often have with social communication.
One way to encourage closer relationships among your children is to look for ways that they can all play, have fun and interact together. For example, many young children with ASD love blowing bubbles and playing with trains – activities their brothers and sisters can enjoy too.
Trying to be fair
It’s important for your children to feel they are all treated fairly:
- Where possible, make family rules that are fair for all your children.
- Use strategies to encourage good behaviour in all your children.
- Try not to accept aggressive or hurtful behaviour from your child with ASD if you won’t accept it from your other children.
It can be tempting to ignore behaviour such as hitting or throwing in your child with ASD because this child ‘doesn’t understand’, or it is just ‘too hard’. But your child’s siblings could see this as unfair, and feel resentful or become upset as a result.
Setting up family roles and responsibilities
All your children can contribute to your family life. Helping around your home helps everyone pull together as a family and teaches all children important independence skills. It’s just a matter of working out roles and responsibilities that are appropriate for your children’s different ages and abilities.
Your typically developing children can do household tasks and chores such as making their beds, washing dishes, folding the clothes and so on. Your child with ASD can take on more responsibilities with age too. For example, this child might be able to get the tablemats out and put them on the dinner table.
It might be tempting to rely on your other children or to expect them to take extra responsibility. It’s important to be fair, though, and to remember that your other children need time just to be children.
Managing negative feelings
While they are learning and adjusting to their sibling’s ASD, your other children might have negative feelings about how they are being treated. They might feel hurt, resentful, anxious or sad. To help, you can:
- Be aware of your children’s feelings and acknowledge them.
Communicate with your children about their feelings in a non-judgemental way.
- Work together to come up with some positive outlets for your children’s feelings. For example, your children might like to draw or paint to express their feelings.
- Talk with another family member or friend about what’s happening. Speaking with another grown-up can help ease your mind and find solutions.
- If you need help managing siblings or their feelings, seek assistance from a professional, such as your GP, a child psychologist or a counsellor.
Joining an ASD family support group is a great way to meet and form friendships with others in your situation. It can also give your typically developing children the opportunity to get to know others who are siblings of children with ASD. Visit the Autism Service Pathfinder
to find out more information about support for you and your family. You could also check out our forum for parents of children with ASD
Effects of ASD on siblings
Generally, siblings of children with ASD adjust well and are not significantly affected in the long term. In fact often, siblings of children with a disability are more caring, compassionate, independent and tolerant.
Still, it can take time for children to adapt to an ASD diagnosis in their sibling, and we know from research that:
- Siblings of children with ASD can be vulnerable to psychological problems later on.
- Brothers can be more vulnerable to these problems than sisters.
- Younger siblings can be more vulnerable than older siblings.
Siblings of children with ASD
In this short video, parents talk about the impact of their child’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on the child’s siblings. They acknowledge that it’s sometimes difficult, but they also praise the way their other children interact with and care for their sibling with ASD. They note that sibling relationships can be especially beneficial to children with ASD, and you can build these relationships by ensuring that neurotypical children understand their siblings with ASD.
All these mums and dads say how important it is to give all children in the family love, time and attention, and they suggest ways you can do this.