About siblings of autistic children
Most siblings have their ups and downs. It can be great to have sisters and brothers to play and share interests with. But many siblings also have times when they disagree, fight and feel like they’re competing for their parents’ attention.
In many ways, having an autistic sibling is similar to having typically developing siblings – it’s both enriching and challenging.
For example, siblings of children with disability, including autistic children, are often particularly caring, compassionate, independent, tolerant and responsive to the needs of others. But sometimes siblings of autistic children might feel sad, anxious or confused about their autistic sibling’s behaviour or its effects on family life.
It’s normal for typically developing children to have a range of changing feelings about their family situation.
If you have both autistic and typically developing children, there’s a lot you can do to support your typically developing children and their relationships with their autistic sibling.
Explaining autism to siblings
If you explain autism to typically developing children, you can help them understand their autistic sibling. This helps to strengthen their relationships with their sibling, which is good for all your children.
By talking about autism, you can also make sure typically developing children have accurate information, which can help reduce any anxiety they feel. For example, young children might think autism is something you can ‘catch’ like a cold. Or some might think they’ve caused their sibling’s autism through bad behaviour or bad thoughts.
Even when children know a bit about autism in general, they often don’t know much about how it affects their sibling in particular. So talking about what autism means for your autistic child can help typically developing children see and understand their sibling as a whole person. It’s important to help your children see your autistic child’s strengths, like having a good memory, as well as the challenges they face, like getting overwhelmed in noisy places.
It’s a good idea to talk about autism as soon as you think your typically developing children can understand, or as soon as they’re old enough to notice their sibling is behaving differently from other children. As children get older and better able to understand, they’ll ask more complicated questions about autism and need more information.
Three basic steps can help you talk with your children about autism. You can adapt these steps for different ages and stages of development:
- Find out what your children know already. You can do this by asking questions like ‘Sophie is autistic. Have you heard of autism?’, or ‘Have you noticed that Sophie plays differently from you?’
- Use language and ideas that your children can understand. For example, you could say, ‘Autism causes people to think a bit differently from you. Some autistic people might play or talk differently or find it hard to understand how other people feel’, or ‘Sophie hasn’t learned to play that game yet so she might play it differently’.
- Be prepared to explain things several times.
Making special time for siblings of autistic children
It’s good for all children to have one-on-one time with their parents, but it can be especially helpful for siblings of autistic children.
One-on-one time sends the message that your typically developing children are special and their feelings and experiences matter to you. This is good for their confidence and sense of belonging to your family. And when your children feel positive about themselves, it can be good for their relationship with their sibling.
You can make special time for your typically developing children by:
- setting aside regular time for your typically developing children each day – it might be a bedtime story, or 10 minutes together at the end of each day when you tell your children three positive things they did in the day
- taking a few minutes to listen when your children want to tell you something – this can help if you can’t always set aside a regular time each day
- making time for special activities with your children – this could be taking your children to the swimming pool or a movie
- using a trusted babysitter or respite carer to look after your autistic child for a day or weekend – this way you can spend more time with your typically developing children.
Finding ways for autistic children and siblings to spend fun time together
Siblings of autistic children generally feel positive about their brothers or sisters, but sometimes their relationships aren’t as close as they could be. This might be because of the difficulties autistic children 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, your children might all enjoy playing with trains or playing basketball.
Setting family rules, roles and responsibilities
It’s important for your children to feel they’re all treated fairly. Clear family rules can help with this:
- Where possible, make family rules that are fair and consistent for all your children.
- Use strategies to encourage good behaviour in all your children.
- Try not to accept aggressive or hurtful behaviour from your autistic child if you won’t accept it from your other children.
It’s also important for all of your children to contribute to family life. Helping around your home helps everyone pull together as a family and teaches all children important independence skills. It’s a matter of working out tasks and chores that suit your children’s different ages and strengths.
Managing siblings’ negative feelings
While they’re learning about and adjusting to their sibling’s autism, your other children might have some negative feelings. For example, at different times they might feel:
- jealous of the amount of time you spend with their sibling
- discouraged because their sibling doesn’t seem to want to play with them
- angry if they think you treat them differently from their sibling
- protective of their sibling and angry if others make fun
- embarrassed by people staring or by unwanted attention during family outings
- guilty for feeling embarrassed or angry about their sibling
- worried you might separate or divorce from your partner because of your family situation
- concerned or resentful about any future role as a carer for their sibling.
Here are some ways to help children with these feelings:
- Be aware of your children’s feelings and acknowledge them. For example, if your child says, ‘I hate playing with Jamie because he takes my toys,’ you could say ‘That must be really frustrating’.
- Talk with your children about their feelings in a non-judgmental way. For example, you might say, ‘I’m not cross with you. Tell me what happened and how it made you feel’.
- 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.
- Share your own feelings to help your typically developing children understand that their feelings are normal. For example, you might say that you feel frustrated sometimes too.
Encouraging a support network outside your family
At times, your other children might feel overwhelmed by family life, especially if they have a sibling with severe behaviour difficulties. Friendships outside the family can help your children feel they’re more than just the siblings of an autistic child.
Joining a sibling support group can help them to realise they’re not alone and understand that what they’re feeling is normal. Counselling can also be a good idea, if children are having a hard time coping.
Joining an autism family support group is a great way to meet and form friendships with other people in similar situations to yours. It can also give your typically developing children the opportunity to get to know other siblings of autistic children.
If you need help managing siblings or their feelings, talk to a professional, like your GP, a psychologist or a counsellor.