When a child has autism, most of the family’s energy and resources go towards that child. Siblings carry their own special burdens as they experience all the hardships and stress attendant with autism, yet may feel they get less of their parents’ attention. More is expected of them than their sibling and they can experience this to be elementally unfair. They are party to people’s hostile reactions when their brother or sister causes a scene in public and may resent the negative attention and even feel embarrassed or pained.
Often, the neurotypical child is the person in the family better able to calm their sibling who is melting down or help them navigate their world. Although both my twins are on the autism spectrum, one has less severe problems than the other and I habitually looked to him for help with his brother. From a very tender age, it was obvious that the twin connection superseded the parent connection. I considered it a blessing and tried very hard to keep both sons’ needs in balance, but truthfully, my more stable son was rendered a “little adult,” despite his own challenges. He was the eye of every storm and I looked to him often.
Parents should give their weight-bearing child the chance to express what it’s like for them to have a brother or sister with autism. These siblings often hide their concerns and become the overachiever or the “easy” child who harbors feelings of invisibility within the family. There is a danger that just like other caregivers who sacrifice too much, they may be giving up their childhood or missing opportunities to just be a kid. Making special one-to-one time expressly for your neurotypical child goes a long way towards letting them know that they are not losing out to the more needy brother or sister.
Siblings have a huge influence on children with autism. In fact, a groundbreaking study published in the latest edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that the influence of siblings actually determines the social behavior of children with autism. Children with autism who have younger siblings demonstrate a significant advance between the ages of three-to-five years in “theory of mind,” or the ability to perceive that everyone has their own intentions, beliefs, desires and emotions. Normally, even the highest-functioning child does not score well in theory of mind before age thirteen, yet these very young children excelled.
Unsurprisingly, siblings of children with autism are often deeply compassionate and wise beyond their years.
This month as a part of Autism Awareness Month, there was a school sponsored event where siblings explained autism from their perspective to their classmates, serving as both ambassadors and liaisons between the autistic and neurotypical worlds.
Clearly, siblings of children on the autism spectrum have a special role to play within the family and community. As such, extra care needs to be taken to honor and support them. Towards that end, many organizations have started groups expressly for siblings of children with autism. Facebook now has a page just for siblings-of-Autistic-Children: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Siblings-of-Autistic-Children/179729994860
And here is a national organization to connect siblings of children with autism with support: http://www.siblingsupport.org