I often wonder how my son appears through my daughter’s eyes. She adores him; this is clear. But what does she make of the sudden outbursts, the seemingly unprovoked anger, and the daily challenges that a family with a child on the spectrum lives with? How does she feel about the attention and resources that are focused on her big brother? How will she feel later, as she grows up and learns to cope with the world in ways he simply cannot? Will she act as his protector? Will she feel resentment? Or will she develop a deep sense of compassion for all those who are different and must learn to live with their own individual challenges?
The brothers and sisters of children on the spectrum will all learn to cope in different ways. As parents, we can help them in this process and teach them and encourage them to grow up to be their own people. We don’t have to do it alone, either. Numerous resources are available to help us and to teach us the skills to foster the individuality of each of our children, whether they are on the autism spectrum or not.
Double Check Your Expectations
Many parents expect older siblings to care for their younger siblings. While this doesn’t seem like such a concern in a family with neurotypical children, when the younger sibling has autism, this can create a high level of stress for older children. They may feel burdened by the responsibility and may eventually develop a feeling of resentment. Additionally, a difficult precedent may be set for the future, especially if the younger sibling has challenges that prevent independent living.
Even younger siblings, as they get older, may find themselves called upon to watch over older siblings who have a lower maturity level and may be unable to care for themselves. How will this be interpreted by the child with autism? Again, what kind of precedent is being set?
Encourage your children to spend time together, but understand that space is necessary. Your neurotypical child should not be a de facto babysitter and should not function as respite care.
Talk With Your Child
From a fairly early age, children are likely to notice their sibling’s differences. They may also notice a difference in how certain behaviors are disciplined or rewarded, which can be very confusing. Autism is difficult to explain, and that explanation will look very different depending on the child’s age and level of understanding.
For a younger child, simply explaining that “big brother doesn’t want to play right now” or “big brother is feeling angry right now” might suffice. You may wish to talk to your children about how they would handle angry feelings, since you might find that younger children occasionally imitate autistic behaviors in the same way that younger siblings typically emulate their big brothers and sisters. In some cases, this could be flapping or other “stimming” type behaviors, or they may imitate the full-blown meltdowns that can sometimes occur.
While some of these behaviors are simply imitation, it’s very important to note that siblings of children on the spectrum do have a higher rate of having autism themselves. Having your child evaluated while young can help you catch a potential problem early. Many studies are also being done on siblings of children with autism. If you live near a large university, you may have access to one of these studies.
Enlist the Help of a Professional
Counseling is not just for the child who is on the spectrum. Parents and siblings will also benefit from counseling to help them deal with the stress and worries that come with having a child on the spectrum. Many siblings of children on the spectrum have questions or concerns that they don’t feel comfortable discussing with their parents or their friends. They worry about appearing as if they don’t care, they may feel resentful of the attention their sibling receives and feel guilty about those feelings, or they may feel stressed out and are worried about contributing to their parents’ concerns. Giving siblings a safe place to express themselves without the fear of judgment is extremely important.
Along those lines, numerous help and support resources for siblings are available. Support groups, camps, and other activities can not only help kids feel validated in their emotions, but can also give them tools for coping. Your child’s therapist can likely help you find good groups and activities that are available in your area, or you can probably find information through your local children’s hospital.