Many parents worry about their typically developing child’s experience growing up as the sibling of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While an autism diagnosis can challenge the unique relationship between siblings, all siblings can learn from each other, bring out the best in each other, and have positive and meaningful relationships.
As in all families, there will be aspects of family life that may be trying. But most children handle the challenges well, especially with the support and understanding of their parents.
Make sure your typically developing children understand what autism is
Explain autism using words and concepts appropriate to your child’s age and understanding. Learning about the condition helps siblings better understand their brother or sister with autism. Talking with a sibling about autism will not be a one-time conversation—it will be a dialogue that will continue and change over time.
Frequently, siblings of children with autism have a unique insight into the family situation. As a parent, it’s important to listen to what siblings are trying to communicate. Set the stage early for open and honest communication so that your children feel comfortable asking questions or expressing concerns or frustrations.
Some of the more common feelings siblings express are:
- Not knowing how to connect with their sibling with autism
- Lack of attention from and alone time with parents
- Concerns about privacy
- Stress from increased responsibility
- Being the target of aggressive behavior
- Worrying about their parents or the future
Recognize the unique strengths and skills of siblings
The special bond that exists between typical siblings can still exist when a sibling has autism. Some parents find that their child with autism is more social or verbal with his typically developing sibling than he is with them or anyone else; siblings can be very creative in figuring out ways to play or interact with their sibling with autism.
Teaching siblings how to engage their sibling with autism
Use simple games that include giving simple instructions and offering praise to help engage a brother or sister in play. Finding ways for siblings to connect through shared activities may increase the amount of time they spend together and make their time together more enjoyable.
Growing up with a sibling with autism can have a positive impact
Many siblings of people with autism learn important life lessons and develop maturity, tolerance, loyalty and empathy as well as increased self-concept and social competence. They may talk about taking pride in teaching their siblings and celebrate their siblings’ successes. They’re learning important lessons about respecting individual differences, fairness and unconditional love.
In the words of a sibling of one of our patients, “It opens your eyes to make you sensitive to different people. I wouldn’t be the same if I had a regular brother. He teaches me a lot, too.”
Tips for siblings
- Let your parents know when you need privacy or time with friends. Ask your parents to help you set up a place where you can work on projects, do homework or play games with friends away from your sibling with autism.
- Schedule alone time with your parents. Use the time to do things that you like or are special for you and your parent, something you might not do together as a family.
- Participate in after-school activities, sports and clubs. It’s OK to have your own interests.
- Although sometimes it may seem like you’re the only one, there are lots of people who have a brother or sister with autism. Ask your parents to help you find out about autism resources for siblings. You may want to read a book, search the internet with your parents’ help, attend a sibling workshop or join a sibling support group.
- Learn about autism so that you can become comfortable talking about your sibling with friends and classmates. Explaining autism to others means that more people will become accepting of people who learn differently, and that’s good for everyone.
Watch our Awesome Dawson video to learn more about one of our patient’s special bonds with his typically developing sister.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.