Being a sibling of a child with autism can be challenging, but it is still possible to have a strong and healthy sibling relationship. There are things that siblings can do and there are things that the child with autism can do to create a strong bond with one another. Parents can help support the relationship between their children, as well.
Siblings Might Not Understand Autism
Siblings may be confused about what autism is or how to interact with their sibling with autism spectrum disorder. They may get frustrated or overwhelmed by their sibling's behavior. They might not understand why the child with ASD gets upset over certain things or why they need to have things a certain way.
For instance, the sibling without autism might not understand why the child with autism needs to sit in the same seat at the table or in the car and why they get upset when someone else “takes their seat.” The sibling also might not understand when the child with autism doesn’t like to go to public places when the child with autism has sensory issues that make being in groups of people, such as in public places like at a grocery store or a restaurant, very difficult for them.
Mixed Thoughts and Emotions
There's a lot that might go through a child's mind when it comes to finding out their sibling has autism or even prior to truly knowing that they have autism.
On the other hand, sometimes kids don't pay much thought to the fact their sibling has autism and instead just view them as another kid and just another part of the family and this can be a good thing. This is a form of acceptance and compassion for the child with autism, as they are viewed as simply another human being and as one of the family members just like anyone else.
However, it may also be helpful to explain to your children who do not have autism what autism means and the kinds of things that would be helpful for the sibling who has autism.
This approach can help to address potential issues that may be present or that may arise in the future. In the sibling relationship, it can also help when you support greater understanding and awareness for the child without autism.
Four-Part Guide to Supporting Siblings of Children with Autism
Although there is never a one-size-fits-all method for parenting any child, there are some general guidelines that can help support your children. We will provide you with a guide based on professional recommendations that aim to support the dynamics and relationship between your children with and without autism.
Goal of the Four-Part Guide
There is a four-part approach to helping navigate the dynamics between your children. The goal of this approach is to do the following:
- To help your children without autism to better understand what autism means
- To help your children without autism to be more involved in the life of your child with autism
- To support the sibling relationship between your children
Let’s explore each part of this approach separately. However, it’s important to remember that the different parts are not meant to be implemented or approached one at a time; Instead, the different parts overlap. They are interconnected.
Part 1: Educating the Sibling
When you have a child with autism and other children who do not have autism, the first part entails education about autism. This has to do with helping the siblings of the child with ASD to better understand autism spectrum disorder while also being able to understand what ASD truly means for their sibling since ASD is experienced differently by everyone with the diagnosis.
You can talk to your children about autism spectrum disorder and help them to understand that ASD is a description of how certain people’s brains work differently than others. More specifically, ASD refers to a set of characteristics or experiences that a person has related to social skills, communication skills, and behaviors.
Traits of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Parents and educators can help siblings of children with autism to learn about the traits of ASD which include the following (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):
- Challenges with social communication and social interaction, such as:
- Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity (Examples include difficulties approaching others, difficulty initiating and maintaining a conversation, reduced level of sharing of interests and emotions with others, failure to appropriately respond to others in a social situation)
- Deficits in nonverbal communication used for social interaction (Examples include difficulties integrating verbal and nonverbal communication, lack of appropriate eye contact, abnormalities in body language or using gestures, lack of appropriate facial expressions)
- Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships (Examples include difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts, difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends, absence of interest in peers)
- Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, such as by having any of the following:
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (Examples include simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases)
- Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (Examples include extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take the same route or eat the same food every day)
- Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (Examples include: strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests)
- Hyper or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (Examples include: apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement)
Each child with autism is unique and experiences traits of ASD differently, so parents and educators should be sure to help siblings to understand how the child with ASD experiences autism in their own way.
You can learn more about autism here: What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? A Guide to Understanding ASD
Part 2: Teaching the Sibling Effective and Compassionate Behaviors
The second part entails education and guidance for the children without ASD about how to interact effectively, appropriately, and compassionately with the child who has autism. This part of the approach has to do with helping siblings learn better ways of interacting with the child who has ASD.
Parents can help siblings learn how what they do has an impact on the child with autism. They can also teach siblings about specific things they can say and do when interacting with the child with autism that will support the relationship with each other. Additionally, parents can teach the brother or sister about ways to set boundaries and ways to express their own wants and needs to their siblings so they can also promote their own well-being.
Another helpful thing that siblings of a child with autism can do to support the relationship is to spend time with together doing things that they both enjoy. This helps the child with ASD to develop a positive feeling about their sibling. Some behavior therapists will call this pairing or rapport building between the sibling and the child with autism. When the sibling engages in activities that the child with autism already enjoys, the sibling becomes more of a positive reinforcer themselves.
You can think about this concept in your own personal life. When you hang out with friends, you probably spend time doing things that your friend enjoys and they probably spend time doing things you enjoy. Sometimes you both enjoy the same things, so you spend time doing those things, as well. So, if there is an activity that you can find that both (or all) of your children enjoy, it can be helpful to create more opportunities for this activity to occur. For example, if your children like to go to the beach, to go swimming, or to do crafts, make more opportunities for your kids to do these things. This will ultimately support the relationship between your children.
Part 3: Validating the Sibling
The third part has to do with validating the child without autism and supporting their own personal individuality. As we mentioned, it’s important to also support the well-being of your children who do not have autism. Of course, it’s important to consider your child with autism and their needs and their preferences, but it’s important to also consider your other children’s experiences, as well.
There are many ways to validate the sibling of a child with autism. Parents can recognize when the sibling is feeling lonely or upset and talk to them about how they are feeling. Parents can also make sure they spend quality time with siblings and try to spend time with them when the child with autism is not around if possible. Parents can also help siblings by encouraging them to find and live in a way that supports their own interests and their own individuality.
Part 4: Teaching the Child with ASD Skills that Support Healthy Relationships
The fourth part of helping siblings of a child with autism is teaching the child with ASD social, communication, and behavioral skills that will support healthy interactions with their siblings. Although every child with ASD has their own unique needs and abilities, it’s possible to have some level of expectation for how parents would like their child with ASD to behave when they interact with their siblings.
For instance, a child who doesn’t speak verbally and who has limited receptive language skills can learn to refrain from being physically aggressive toward their sibling when they become frustrated or angry or when they are trying to communicate that they want something from the sibling. This can be accomplished through the use of behavioral strategies and functional communication training to help the child with autism learn more effective methods of expressing their wants and needs.
Let’s consider another example of teaching a child with autism skills that can support their relationship with their siblings specifically for a child who does have age and developmentally appropriate verbalization skills. In this case, the parents can help the child with autism to learn how to improve their conversation skills with their siblings, how to use active listening skills, and how to be tolerant and show appropriate listening skills when their sibling is talking about their own interests even if the child is not very interested in that topic or activity themselves.
(Behavioral Innovations has experienced staff who can help your child to learn to use more effective communication strategies while also promoting more peace and healthier interactions between your children. Contact us at 855.782.7822)
Helping Siblings of Children with Autism
We have reviewed a four-part guide on supporting siblings of children with autism and how parents and educators can help to promote positive sibling relationships when one or more of the siblings has ASD.
All four of the parts discussed in this guide are interconnected and there is not necessarily an end to any one of the parts or steps in this process. Siblings can continue to learn about autism and how autism affects those who have the disorder. Parents can continue to teach, guide, and reinforce positive behaviors they see in the siblings as it relates to how they interact with the child with autism. Parents can always try to validate and consider the well-being of each of their children regardless of whether the child has a disorder or diagnosis or not. And, finally, the child with autism can benefit from learning skills that help them to interact with others including with their siblings.
When parents learn to use all four ideas we have discussed, their efforts can help create a better overall family dynamic. It helps each individual family member be more supportive of one another and it also teaches the children in the family social, communication, and relationship skills that will benefit them not only in their interactions with their siblings today but it will likely benefit their relationships and interactions with others throughout their lifetime.
Autism Speaks (2018). Siblings Guide to Autism. Retrieved 8/6/2021 from https://www.autismspeaks.org/tool-kit/siblings-guide-autism
Gilmore, H. (2020). What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? A Guide to Understanding ASD. Retrieved 8/6/2021 from https://www.abaparenttraining.com/home/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder-what-is-asd