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Helping Your “Neurotypical” Children Cope with a Sibling on the Autism Spectrum

Parenting a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) places some unexpected burdens on moms and dads – as well as siblings. The time involved in meeting the needs of a family member on the autism spectrum may leave the parent with little time for the other kids. As a result, there may be consistent tension in the household.

Many siblings of an AS or HFA child experience the following stressors:
  • Angry that no one pays attention to them (in their opinion)
  • Being the target of aggressive behaviors from the autistic child
  • Concern over their role in care-taking
  • Concern regarding their parents’ anxiety
  • Embarrassment around peers
  • Frustration over not being able to engage or get a response from their AS or HFA sibling
  • Guilty for negative feelings they have toward their brother/sister
  • Guilty for not having the same problems as their sibling
  • Jealousy regarding the amount of time and attention their mom and dad spend with their sibling
  • Not knowing how to handle situations in which their sibling is teased or bullied by others
  • Pressure to be or do what their brother/sister can’t
  • Resentful of having to explain, support, or take care of their sibling
  • Resentful that they are unable to do things or go places because of their brother/sister
  • Trying to make up for the deficits of their sibling
  • Worried about their brother/sister

Due to the nature of AS and HFA, it is difficult for brothers and sisters to form a satisfying relationship with the sibling who has the disorder. For instance, the siblings’ attempts to play with their autistic brother may (a) be rejected by his ignoring them, (b) fail because of his lack of play skills, or (c) end suddenly because his meltdowns are scary. What child would keep trying to form a friendship with someone who seemed upset to one degree or another every time he was approached? It’s not surprising that siblings become discouraged by the reactions they encounter from their autistic sibling.

There are special demands placed on the siblings of an AS or HFA child. Thus, it is crucial that they learn to manage these demands. It’s also crucial that parents (a) educate their “neurotypical” (i.e., non-autistic) children about autism spectrum disorders, (b) work at improving interactions among all the kids in the family, and (c) ensure brothers and sisters grow up feeling they have benefited from the love, time and attention they all need.

Fortunately, your non-autistic kids can be taught simple skills that will help them to engage their AS or HFA sibling in playful interactions. These skills include things such as praising good play, making sure they have their autistic sibling’s attention, and giving simple instructions.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Below are some suggestions regarding ways parents can help their “neurotypical” kids in the family cope gracefully and effectively with the experience of having a sibling on the autism spectrum:

1. Even though it is important for your AS or HFA youngster to feel like a fully integrated member of the family, it is equally as important that your other kids have “special time” too. Thus, as much as possible, try to find some regular, separate time for the other kids. It could be as simple as one evening a week, a Sunday morning, or even a 10 minutes at bedtime each night.

Making sure that each and every child has the exact amount of “parent-time” is not necessary – or even important. What is important, though, is the opportunity for each child to feel special and to feel an overall atmosphere of equity in the home. If the “special needs” youngster experiences serious behavior-management problems, most parents will have neither the endurance nor the time to give all the kids exactly the same amount of attention. This is understandable and something that simply comes with the territory.

2. If the AS or HFA child is particularly aggressive or disruptive, the emotions of the “neurotypical” children may become so severe or upsetting that they will need professional counseling to help them cope. Also, meeting and talking with other kids going through the same thing can be very helpful (even if it's just online).

3. Research supports the idea that siblings of an AS or HFA child need to understand what autism is all about. Parents need to educate their “neurotypical” children about the disorder early – and do it often! From early childhood, these siblings need explanations that help them understand the behaviors that are of concern to them. And, the information provided needs to be adjusted to the siblings’ age and understanding.

For instance, very young kids may be concerned about the odd behaviors of the AS or HFA child that scare them (e.g., meltdowns, aggression, etc.). An older youngster may have concerns about how to explain autism to his or her peers. For teenagers, these concerns may shift to the long-range needs of their “special needs” sibling and the role they will play in future care. Every age has its needs, and the parent’s task is to listen carefully to the immediate concerns of the non-autistic children.

4. Some degree of sibling rivalry is to be expected in all families, whether or not autism is factored in to the equation. But, sometimes the rivalry crosses the line into abuse (e.g., one of the children acts out abuse in play, acts out sexually in inappropriate ways, has changes in behavior/sleep patterns/eating habits, has nightmares, always avoids his or her sibling, one child is always the aggressor while the other is always the victim, or the conflict between siblings is increasing over time). If there is a chance the sibling relationship has become abusive, parents should seek professional help.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

5. Try to have a mixture of family activities where all members participate, and individual activities where one child is the focus of your attention. In addition to one-on-one time, it’s also good to have some events when one youngster in the family has the focus of everyone’s attention (e.g., birthdays, graduations, etc.).

Siblings may become frustrated and angry if they have to do everything with their AS or HFA sister/brother. In fact, there may be times when it may not be fair to insist that they be included. For instance, if the AS or HFA child can’t sit still for a school play, then it may be better if she or he stays home while your “neurotypical” youngster performs.

6.    Consider purchasing some books on the topic. Here are a few:
  • Brothers and Sisters: A Special Part of Exceptional Families, by Thomas Powell and Peggy Gallagher.
  • Offspring and Parents, by Diane Marsh, Rex Dickens and E. Fuller Torrey. 
  • It Isn't Fair! Edited by Stanley D. Klein and Maxwell J. Schleifer
  • Living with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs: A Book for Siblings, by Donald Meyer and Patricia Vadasy.
  • Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

7.    Talk to your physician if you see any of these warning signs in your “neurotypical” children as they try to cope with a sibling on the autism spectrum:
  • withdrawal (e.g., hibernating in their bedroom)
  • talk of hurting themselves
  • poor self-esteem
  • poor concentration
  • physical symptoms (e.g., headaches or stomachaches)
  • perfectionism
  • loss of interest in activities
  • hopelessness
  • frequent crying or worrying
  • difficulty separating from parents
  • changes in eating or sleeping (e.g., too much or too little)

Research indicates that the majority of “neurotypical” kids cope well with their experience of having an AS or HFA sibling. However, that doesn’t mean that they do not encounter particular difficulties in learning how to deal with him or her. While having a sibling on the spectrum is a challenge to the siblings, it is certainly not an insurmountable obstacle. Most “neurotypical” kids handle the challenge effectively, and many of them respond with humor, grace, and love far beyond their years.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

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