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Supporting Siblings of Autistic Children

Supporting Siblings of Autistic Children

Siblings of autistic individuals experience both benefits and challenges related to their sibling relationships. Benefits often include greater empathy, compassion, and resilience. Challenges can include parentification (i.e., acting in a parental role in childhood), struggling to plan for future caregiving, and responding to challenging behaviors.

Parents often report worrying about the experiences and well-being of their neurotypical children. It is important for parents to remember that there are many benefits to having autistic siblings. These suggestions may help alleviate those worries.

Educate About Autism

If you have recently received an autism diagnosis for one of your children, it is important to educate your entire family, including your neurotypical children, about autism. You can share books, articles, social media posts, and/or videos from autistic individuals, depending on the needs and preferences of your family member. This may help educate your children about autism as well as provide a firsthand narrative from an autistic person.

Address Concerns About the Future Directly

Siblings often report wanting to talk to their parents about the future. Even young siblings are often thinking about the future. They may be planning to live with their autistic brother or sister. They may be contemplating serving in a caregiving or supportive role. Research shows that future planning benefits parents, neurotypical siblings, and autistic individuals. Yet, siblings report that their parents are often reluctant or even refuse to talk about the future.

Planning should include the sibling and the autistic individual, as both should have input in their future. Future planning needs to be flexible. However, having a plan can help assuage any anxiety that may exist among siblings. As a resource, consider The Arc’s Center for Future Planning.

Provide Individual Time with the Neurotypical Child

Parenting is hard under any circumstance. Parenting an autistic child can pose its own obstacles, given the many systemic barriers to accessing needed supports. With competing demands on your time as a parent, it can be hard to carve out time with each child. Respite care can provide you with time to spend individually with each of your children without autism. You may be eligible for waivers that will pay for the care.

Address Challenging Behaviors

If your autistic child exhibits challenging behaviors, it is important to address the behaviors with your neurotypical children. You may consider teaching your neurotypical children how to respond to challenging behaviors and ways to prevent those behaviors from occurring. These suggestions can help:

  • Include your neurotypical children in a functional behavior assessment, which identifies the cause of the behavior and addresses their safety and well-being.
  • Identify a code word indicating a crisis to signal to the neurotypical sibling/s to go to a specific place for safety. You may also practice responding to the code word especially when you anticipate potential challenging behavior.

You may also consider the unintended impact of challenging behaviors on siblings. Even when behaviors are not occurring, siblings may be nervous or anxious at the prospect of those challenging behaviors. Talk to your children about their concerns. Discuss ways to cope with uncertainty. These strategies may also help.

Consider Enrolling Your Child in Sibshops

Siblings of autistic individuals often report that they would like to meet and befriend other siblings of autistic individuals. Autism is a unique experience. It can be helpful to meet others with similar lived experiences. Yet, siblings often report that they do not meet another sibling of an autistic individual until they reach adulthood.

To help create a support network for your neurotypical child, look into whether there is a Sibshop in your community. Sibshops were created for young children, ages 8 to 13, to provide siblings an opportunity to meet one another, discuss shared experiences, and benefit from peer support. There are Sibshops for children as young as six and for teens as well. Find a Sibshop in your community.

As with all sibling relationships, having an autistic brother or sister often yields both positive and negative experiences. These sibling relationships ebb and flow over time, just like all relationships do. I hope that the abovementioned strategies are useful to you; if not useful now, they may be useful in the future.

Meghan Burke, Ph.D., is a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University. Her research interests include advocacy, families of individuals with disabilities, and disability policy. Her research examines how families advocate for services for their family members with disabilities and how siblings of individuals with disabilities transition to caregiving roles. She has lectured widely and published articles in scholarly journals such as Autism, American Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and Journal of Special Education. She is co-author of Families and Professionals: Trusting Partnerships in General and Special Education, 8th Edition, and Exceptional Lives: Practice, Progress, and Dignity in Today’s Schools.

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