Being the sibling of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be both a challenging and enriching experience. Here are some ideas for looking after typically developing siblings of children with ASD, ensuring they get your time and attention, and helping them understand more about ASD.
Parenting siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder
Having a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can make it difficult to find time for the needs of your other children. You might sometimes feel 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 your other children.
Explaining ASD to siblings
It’s a good idea to start explaining autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to siblings as soon as you think they can understand, or as soon as they’re 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 better able to understand, you’ll 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.
Effects of autism spectrum disorder on siblings
Generally, siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) adjust well and aren’t significantly affected in the long term. Often, siblings of children with disability are more caring, compassionate, independent and tolerant.
Still, it can take time for children to adapt to an ASD diagnosis in their sibling:
- 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.
Children react to the same situation in different ways. They might seem upset for no apparent reason and act out. It could take a while to understand what’s really making them upset. It might be that they’re feeling:
- jealous of the amount of time that you’re spending with their sibling
- dscouraged from playing with their sibling who doesn’t seem to want to play with them
- angry if they think you have different expectations for them compared to their sibling – for example, tolerating aggressive behaviour, or letting their sibling get out of household chores
- protective of their sibling and angry if others make fun
- embarrassed by people staring and by unwanted attention during family outings
- guilty for having negative feelings, such as embarrassment or anger, towards their sibling
- concerned that the added stress is affecting your wellbeing and your relationship with your partner – for example, some children might worry that you and your partner might separate or divorce
- concerned or resentful about any future role as carer for their sibling.
You might notice differences between how you parent your child with autism spectrum disorder (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 them
- encouraging closer relationships with their sibling with ASD
- trying to be fair
- setting up family roles and responsibilities
- managing any negative feelings
- encouraging a support network outside the family.
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 carer to look after your child with ASD for a day or weekend – this way you can spend a longer period with your other children.
You might feel that it’s unfair to spend more time with your child with ASD than your other children. But the important thing is to make your other children feel special during their time with you, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, such as when you pick them up from school, or at bedtime.
If your other children feel that they’re also special to you, they’ll come to understand the situation more and more as they get older. They’ll be less likely to feel resentful towards their sibling.
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’re 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’s 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 placemats out and put them on the dinner table.
It might be tempting to rely on your other children or expect them to take on 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’re learning and adjusting to their sibling’s ASD, your other children might have negative feelings about how they’re being treated. They might feel hurt, resentful, anxious or sad.
Here are some ways to help them with these feelings:
- Be aware of your children’s feelings and acknowledge them.
- Communicate with your children about their feelings in a non-judgmental 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.
Encouraging a support network outside the family
At times, your other children might feel overwhelmed by their family life, especially if they have a sibling with severe behaviour difficulties. If your other children have friendships outside the family, it can help them have a sense of identity other than being a sibling of a child with ASD.
Joining a sibling support group can help them to realise they’re not alone and to understand that what they’re feeling is completely natural. Counselling can also be a good idea, if they’re having a hard time coping.
Joining an ASD family support group is a great way to meet and form friendships with other people in a similar situation to yours. It can also give your typically developing children the opportunity to get to know others who are siblings of children with ASD.
You can visit the Autism Service Pathfinder to find out more information about support for you and your family. Or you could check out our forum for parents of children with ASD.
Video 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 love, time and attention, and they suggest ways you can do this.