If your child has autism, you know that this condition affects everything from his ability to bond and communicate, to the foods and clothing he can tolerate. These challenges inevitably affect the whole family, including your other children. But your kids are not alone in their experience of having a sibling with autism: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one child in 88 was diagnosed with autism in 2012. Seek support early to minimize the negative effects of having a sibling with autism, while bolstering the positive aspects.
Children often feel a sense of isolation, says Andrea D. Cherry, M.Ed., an autism expert and founder of Cherry-Bassett Autism Consulting, a support service for parents and school districts in Kingwood, Texas. Your child may long for a playmate or have feelings of embarrassment. Some kids believe they're somehow responsible for their sibling's condition. Counter these feelings with education, advises Cherry. "Talk with your child about differences in communication and play styles, and find solutions." For example, your child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) might prefer stacking blocks to building a castle or rolling the wheels of a car rather than playing with it. Structure play to include these elements. Kids with autism often have trouble communicating verbally, so help your child learn to use signs or pictures to communicate with a sibling with autism. Sign your typical child up for a peer support group. Through these groups, children learn that they're not alone. They can talk with other kids about the challenges of having a sibling with autism and learn about new ways to interact and manage relationships.
Another common problem is that of confusion caused by inconsistent parental expectations. Many children with autism have behavioral issues, such as aggressiveness. Although it's tempting to look the other way or make allowances, don't allow behaviors that you wouldn't tolerate in your other children, says Cherry. "Kids are quick to pick up on these discrepancies, which can cause feelings of anger and resentment. You might also unwittingly encourage negative behavior from your typical kids." Instead, try to determine why an autistic child is displaying a certain behavior, then replace that behavior with a more functional one. For example, if your child throws temper tantrums during transitions, give plenty of notice before a change and use a communication board or pictures to allow your child to make choices for the next activity.
Caring for a child with autism can seem overwhelming. Other siblings sometimes feel resentment over the attention parents pay to a sibling with autism. Schedule time each day for your other children. This might be as simple as spending a few minutes talking before bedtime or going for a walk together. Take advantage of community resources, such as respite care or family therapy, to help you balance the demands on your time. Additionally, give your kids responsibilities around the house and enroll them in sports and other activities. Although autism affects the entire family, it doesn't have to take over your family's life, says licensed clinical social worker Connie Hammer, founder of Parent Coaching for Autism in Auburn, Maine. "Help your children find their own space. Kids need chances to do their own thing and play with their own friends without their sibling."
Children with autism require some extra care and might have challenging behaviors, but autistic kids have many strengths, as well. They can teach siblings to look at the world in new and creative ways. They often possess a sensitivity and intuition that others lack. Many kids with autism have a zany sense of humor too. Teach your children to appreciate these characteristics and develop their own skills in response. Children with an autistic sibling are usually more empathetic and patient because of their experiences. They understand that life isn't perfect, and that's OK. To foster these positive qualities, express your love and appreciation to your children regularly. Make sure that they feel comfortable talking with you about their feelings, says Dr. Robert Melillo, autism expert, author of "Disconnected Kids" and founder of Brain Balance Achievement Centers. "It’s crucial to check in periodically to make sure the siblings feel included and don’t feel resentment. Don’t be afraid to ask them plainly how they’re feeling."