Autism & the Sibling Effect

As we all know, autism affects the whole family, not just your baby.  Nobody know this better than the neurotypical siblings.  I know that my children have been affected both positively and negatively from having a brother with autism.

My oldest daughter asked me prior to my son’s official diagnosis, if her brother has autism.  When asked why, she said that he has some of the same behaviors as the autistic children in her class.  Our children are insightful, sensitive, and much more aware then we give them credit for.  We as parents are required to steward that intuitiveness in our children so they can grow and develop into well-adjusted coping adults.  This blog highlights some of the areas that siblings are affected by autism and ways to help them grow.

Genetic Predisposition & Exposure to Similar Environments

Research shows that if you have a child with eczema, asthma, and allergies their medical issues are often minimalized until that same child enters 2nd or 3rd grade and receives a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD.  Parents then shift the focus to “why” their child has now received an ADD/ADHD diagnosis.  As you know, the leap between ADD/ADHD to a spectrum disorder, like autism, is not a far jump to make.

As a parent, I would recommend that you not minimalize your neurotypical child with medical needs, no matter how “well controlled” they seem to be.  If your child has food allergies, but has never used their Epi-Pen, that is not the point.  Treating the root cause of their food allergy is.  Questioning, “why did my child develop food allergies?” is the question we should be asking ourselves.

The American Journal of Psychiatry also posted research demonstrating that there is a 20% chance of having a child with ASD if an older neurotypical child has a diagnosis other than ASD, such as a speech and language delay.

If you find yourself in a similar situation like myself, where my oldest has food allergies and my youngest daughter had a speech delay and didn’t know the research.  Don’t beat yourself up, because you didn’t see the warning signs, like an oncoming train.  Forgive yourself and now make sure all your kids are on the right track to getting healthy!

Physical Health and Wellbeing

Being a sibling to a family member who has a diagnosis of autism carries a lot more stressors than their peers.  Siblings of children with a disability are an at risk group for emotional and behavioral problems. Much of the attention from parents is shifted away from them and toward the autistic child receiving care.

As a parent, it’s important to refocus time and energy toward the non-ASD siblings in the family.  Spending time individually with neurotypical siblings can:

  • increase their self-esteem
  • develop coping skills
  • teaches empathy
  • Loyalty
  • Compassion

Individual time spent with parents helps to develop and strengthen the parent-child bond.

Exercise

Neurotypical children also need to move their bodies.  Exercise helps them to focus and release a lot their stressors.  Whether you can plan to exercise together as a family or enroll your child in afterschool programs, where they can get into sports. Kids need a minimum of 3 hours of exercise a week, which would help to promote a healthy lifestyle, bone growth, muscle, cardiovascular and respiratory strengthening.

I would recommend that parents guard this exercise time for their children like they would for specialty appointments for their child with autism.  Siblings need to know and feel that they are important too.  Guarding this time will also build a strong foundation that physical fitness and health is important throughout their lifetime.

Kids need to be outside!  Being in nature helps your kids to learn how to navigate their environments.  Outdoor play helps your children to learn more effectively, not only that, but they are getting in tune with nature and are learning how to navigate their bodies in relation to their surroundings.

In terms of wellbeing, it is important for siblings to be able to have activities outside of disability arena.  Getting them involved in activities that promote their special interests with neurotypical peers.

Date Night

Setting up a weekly or bimonthly date night individually with mom and dad (separately if possible) is important because it reinforces to the neurotypical child that they too are special to the parents individually.

Social and Emotional Health

Having a sibling with autism or another neurodevelopmental disorder causes increased stress, but affected siblings tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Kindness
  • Understanding
  • Compassion
  • Loyalty
  • Empathy

CHALLENGES

Some of the challenges that neurotypical siblings carry when their sibling is affected by autism is:

  • Worry
  • Scared
  • Loss
  • Anger
  • Jealous

All items need to be explored and validated.  Let the siblings know you know what they are dealing with.  They go through a similar grief process as you do, especially if the siblings are older.  For more on the grief cycle related to autism, check out Mary Romaniec’s book Victory Over Autism.

Give your neurotypical child or children their own thing.  Whether your neurotypical children like piano, coding, martial arts, foster that in them.

Another intervention is to provide a social group with your neurotypical child or children with others who are going through the same thing.  Especially in aged matched groupings.  Then these peer siblings can bond and discuss their feelings of what it is like to have a sibling with autism.

Teaching Coping Mechanisms to Our Children

Siblings have exposures to a world that is so vastly different than their friends.  Therefore it is important to allow neurotypical siblings to be able to process these experiences in a healthy way that they can bring forward as they grow.

Children react the way the parents react.  If there’s stress in the home, all children will absorb the stress and react what is modeled to them.

Family Unit Care

The parents are responsible for the family unit.  Make sure you are reaching out for help.  Support systems, such as:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Church
  • local autism support groups
  • respite services

These systems are vital for recovery, but you need to make sure you are reaching out.  Just because you have been placed on Autism Island, as Marcia Hinds notes in her book, I Know You’re in There, doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

Support and strengthen your family unit by trying the following interventions:

  • dinner around the table nightly
  • family game night
  • weekly movie night
  • family picnics in the park together
  • practicing religious faith together

The events do not need to be big or expensive, they just need to have your whole family together to enjoy each other and not focus on autism per say.

Family CEO

You and your spouse are the CEO’s of your family.  It is important that you focus autism recovery on all members of your family.  Acknowledging the struggles of your neurotypical children and how they are affected by autism, as well as working with them to ensure that they grow into well adjusted, compassionate adults is key to autism recovery for the whole family.

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