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Autism and Sibling Relationships: A Parent’s Guide

Growing up with a sibling shapes who a person becomes, and the sibling bond can be one of the most genuine a person will ever have. Being a sibling means feeling angry, jealous, or annoyed with a person one minute, then laughing, sharing secrets, and fiercely defending them the next. Siblings love and accept each other just as they are. They look out for each other — always having each other’s backs. The sibling relationship when one of the siblings is on the autism spectrum is even more unique. Some aspects can be tough, and some can be incredibly fulfilling. 

Having a child with autism affects the whole family, and siblings are certainly no exception. A sibling plays a very important role in an autistic person’s life, and vice versa. Research has shown that this type of sibling relationship can have many positive effects for both the neurotypical sibling as well as the sibling on the spectrum. The typical sibling is more likely to develop and exhibit patience, empathy, maturity, and resilience. For the atypical sibling who may find social interaction more challenging, the sibling relationship can provide daily communication and meaningful friendship, as well as a gateway to social interactions with others. Many typical children feel very protective of their siblings on the spectrum and can become very invested in their success. They may understand their sibling better than anyone (including parents) and often act as an interpreter or mediator between their sibling and others.

Research has also shown, however, that siblings of a child with autism are more likely to develop anxiety and depression. On average, they are more likely to have lower self-worth and a less optimistic outlook in general. This is particularly true when additional factors such as poverty and/or a sibling with significant behavioral issues are present, but it is certainly not a guarantee, as many siblings of children on the autism spectrum grow into perfectly well-adjusted adults.

As a parent who wants the best for all of your children, balancing the needs of both your typical and atypical children can be overwhelming to consider, and it can be tricky to know how to best support them. Here, we will discuss some tips to help each of your children not only be the most supportive siblings they can be, but also feel supported themselves.

Honesty is the best policy. Siblings need communication that is open, honest, and ongoing. Often, anxiety or withdrawal of the typical sibling in this situation is due to a lack of information. The more you inform your child (to a developmentally appropriate extent) about their sibling’s diagnosis, the reasons they may behave a certain way, or need certain accommodations, the more they will be a supportive and understanding family participant. 

Parental attention should be consistent and celebrate each child individually. It’s not uncommon for families to make a big show of praising each milestone or success of their child on the spectrum, and this is a wonderful thing to do. Also, the sibling on the spectrum may inadvertently get more attention, due to the nature of their needs. This can cause the typical sibling to start to feel invisible or lose self-esteem. Parents should take special care to consistently give individualized attention to each child. Encouragement for their unique personalities and achievements can go such a long way. This also means regularly setting aside one-on-one time for each child to have with a parent, giving each relationship space and time to grow.

Appropriate interaction between siblings should be modeled, taught, and practiced. Parents can help both their typical and atypical children interact with each other by modeling the behavior they want to see and teaching each child how to treat the other. It helps to make sure positive behaviors such as communication, sharing, and turn taking are rewarded and praised heavily all around, and practiced together frequently. It can also help to give the typical child some strategies for how to encourage desired behaviors in their sibling, handle concerning behaviors, and most importantly, plans for how to stay safe if their sibling is prone to physical or emotional outbursts. 

Siblings need to feel like they’re being treated fairly. It’s important not to underestimate what your child on the spectrum is capable of. They can often do chores or have developmentally appropriate responsibilities, which is a great way to build important life skills and self-confidence. Likewise, it’s important to make sure that your typical sibling is not expected to “carry the weight” of both siblings. While they should have responsibilities that are appropriate to their abilities, and as a part of the team they will help with their sibling, they should not be overburdened to the point of unfairness or resentment. Ensure they have time to be a kid and make mistakes too.

Managing feelings about a sibling’s disability takes parental (and sometimes professional) guidance. It’s important to listen to your children’s feelings, acknowledge that you hear what is being said, and even repeat them back to check that you understood them. Be sure to let them know that both positive and negative feelings are normal and acceptable. Sharing your own positive and negative emotions appropriately is crucial as well. Parents are important models of behavior. Their example as well as guidance can help siblings learn ways to manage their emotions. Don’t be afraid to involve a counselor or therapist, as they can offer strategies and insights to help the whole family.

Practice and guidance helps with addressing a sibling’s disability with others. 
Parents can help prepare siblings for possible reactions from others toward their brother or sister on the spectrum. As your children grow, discuss and practice solutions to possible situations that could arise around other people. Make sure the typical sibling can give important facts about autism, particularly as it relates to their sibling on the spectrum. It could also be helpful for both siblings to carry their own information card about autism, which they can hand out as needed.

Know that they are not alone, and neither are you. It is important for siblings to know that lots of other kids are growing up with a brother or sister who has a disability. Providing opportunities to read about or meet other siblings can be very meaningful. Some children may even benefit from attending a sibling support group or events where they can participate in fun activities and talk about their feelings with others with whom they share an understanding. The same can be very helpful for parents. For more information and reading material for siblings of all ages (as well as parents), check out The Organization for Autism Research.