Caring for siblings
In the struggles and challenges that can follow the diagnosis of autism for your child, it may be easy for parents to lose sight of the fact that the child’s brothers and sisters could be struggling too.
Understanding what autism is, how it impacts their sibling, what changes will come next for their family and how to manage their emotions are some of the questions that arise for siblings of children on the spectrum.
Siblings of a young person with ASD can feel a range of emotions that they may be reluctant to express:
- resentment about the amount of time and energy their parents devote to their sibling with autism and the other negative effects on their life (such as not being able to invite friends over to the house)
- sadness about a lost relationship with a brother or sister
- embarrassment at their brother or sister’s behaviour in public
- anger towards their sibling with autism, particularly if that sibling is aggressive
- guilt about celebrating their own abilities and successes
- fears about the future and who will care for their brother or sister longer-term.
Parents can help safeguard their typically developing children against emotional problems by:
- avoiding ‘favouritism’ and setting aside dedicated time to spend with each of their children
- encouraging shared activities that involve the whole family
- ensuring siblings are well-informed about the nature of ASD (some useful resources are listed below)
- ensure siblings understand their brother or sister on the spectrum is that first, their brother or sister, autism is a just one part of their life, it doesn’t define them
- in the longer term, putting safeguards in place for the future care of the child with autism
- having open and honest discussions as a family
It’s important to acknowledge these are valid emotions for siblings, ones they shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed about. Siblings Australia says:
Siblings can often be overlooked, which can lead to feelings of isolation. If this continues, children can become vulnerable to a range of emotional and mental health problems. However, if siblings are acknowledged, and connected to sources of support, they are likely to become more resilient.
The Raising Children Network offers advice on how to explain ASD to a typically developing child and how to manage having different expectations of different children under the one roof. Siblings Australia also offers a range of resources and factsheets as well as online forums where siblings can connect with others in a similar situation.
Our short documentary film, What are you doing? aims to teach school-aged children about acceptance and understanding of their peers with ASD. The film is told through the voices of brothers and sister of young people with ASD. Through beautiful imagery, engaging narrative and quirky animation, ‘What are you doing?’ sends the all important message of inclusion and understanding for everyone on the autism spectrum.
Research indicates that one of the most effective ways of promoting well-being in siblings of children with autism is to involve them in a support group or program. Some state autism associations run events and camps for siblings of children with ASD. It’s important for siblings to connect with other siblings and share their similar experiences. Siblings Australia offers some excellent advice and tips on what siblings need to feel strong and secure.