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Sibling Support

Posted 7/11/2017 by UHBlog

Learn how parents can help siblings relate to and appreciate their brother or sister with autism spectrum disorder. Ask us.

Sibling Support

Every mom or dad knows that skillful parenting takes work. Add a child on the autism spectrum to the family and the challenges increase.

“Having a child with autism can be extremely fulfilling, but can also lead to stress in the family,” says pediatric neuropsychologist Christine Barry, PhD. “It’s so important that parents educate their children early on about their sibling’s differences. (It's) a conversation that should be ongoing. Age-appropriate discussions can clear up confusion about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and dispel fear.”

Very often, children with special needs will inspire those who love them to become special people in their own right. For siblings to adjust to their brother or sister with ASD, they need to understand that children with ASD process what they see and feel differently than they do.

“Children with ASD look like everyone else but have problems interpreting the world around them, making friends and are often bothered by sensory issues,” says Dr. Barry. “By explaining these differences in developmentally appropriate terms, parents can help their children understand that feelings of acceptance, love, kindness and empathy are crucial for every member of their family.”

Despite parents’ best efforts, it’s not unusual for siblings to feel embarrassed by the behavior of the brother or sister with ASD in public, or to be reluctant to bring their friends home. Siblings may have trouble with conflicting feelings, including:

  • Jealous of the attention their brother or sister receives
  • Angry that they may receive less attention
  • Resentful of having to explain, support or take care of their brother or sister
  • Ashamed about their sibling's differences
  • Discouraged because their sibling does not want to play with them
  • Protective of their sibling
  • Guilty about negative feelings they have toward their sibling or that they don't have the same problems

It’s important to validate any negative feelings siblings express,” Dr. Barry says. “Parents must assure their children these negative feelings are a normal part of life. Suggest positive ways to deal with their feelings and give them tools to cope with the stress they may feel.”

According to Dr. Barry, you may want to include siblings in their brother's or sister’s treatment intervention appointments to allow them to understand useful ways of coping with their sibling’s differences. She also recommends getting help through the University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Sibling Support clinic. This clinic provides an opportunity for siblings to talk to a psychologist or clinical social worker about their feelings.

Because children with ASD require more parental attention, it’s important to carve out time during the day for the other children in your family. This can include:

  • Setting aside a set time each day for each child to read a book at bedtime, prepare a meal together and/or play a game
  • Making sure you listen when a child has something important to tell you
  • Taking time for special activities with your child, such as going to a movie, bike riding or doing a school project
  • Hiring a babysitter for your child with ASD so you can spend a longer period of time with your other children

“We must remember that all children in a family, regardless of their diagnosis, are young people who need to feel loved, valued and accepted for who they are,” says Dr. Barry.

Christine Barry, PhD, is a pediatric neuropsychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Barry or any other doctor online.

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