The Best Ways to Support Siblings of Autistic Children
Every day my oldest son, Andrew, and my daughter with autism, Lizzie, rode their scooters down the block. They would go just out of my sight to the same crack in the sidewalk where Lizzie would turn around; then they would race back to me.
For months, I walked with them fearing they would go farther, but Lizzie’s rigidity kicked in, and she always turned around at the crack. Over time, I began to see her repetition as a luxury because I could sit on the steps in front of my house, feeling confident they would be out of my sight for only ten seconds.
Except that day. That day, twenty seconds became thirty…and thirty seconds became a minute…and a minute became two, and then I started to panic!
My mind began racing. Where were they?!! Lizzie would never break her routine. This must be Andrew’s fault. I was furious as I jumped in the car and drove around the neighborhood, methodically looking up and down each street. My fury soon turned to fear as I got closer to the busy streets with rush hour traffic.
There was no sign of them. I stopped back by my house to see if they had returned home. They hadn’t. This is all my fault. I had let them out of my sight! I hopped back in the car to continue my search and called my husband to tell him what was going on. I checked the park. I checked the school. I kept driving up and down the streets. Finally, I saw them slowly scootering towards home. I let out a sigh of relief that they were safe, then felt the anger return.
“Andrew!!!” I yelled, “Where were you? I have been looking all over for you and Lizzie!!!”
“Mom, Lizzie got to the crack and kept on going. I knew you would want me to stay with her to make sure she was safe. She wouldn’t listen to me, so I just followed her. When she came to a busy street, I told her there were monsters down that street. That would make her turn around and go a different way,” Andrew replied.
As the tears streamed down my face, I hugged both kids tight. I thanked Andrew for being a smart and loving brother. That is when I realized I rarely gave him the credit he deserved, so I began to practice these six ways to support siblings:
1. Reinforce siblings’ strong character and good behavior
For our special needs child, we set up behavior charts, carry treats in our purses and reinforce regularly. Unfortunately, often the only attention the siblings get is when they do something wrong. Become aware of the positive things the siblings do. Begin to point these out often by praising them and giving them extra privileges. Watch their confidence rise and attitude soar.
2. Create “special time” at least once a week with the siblings
It doesn’t have to be a big event or fancy occasion. Maybe it’s playing a game when your special needs child is in bed, going out for ice cream during therapy, or letting them pick the movie one afternoon. These small gestures remind them they are just as loved and important as the special needs child.
3. Establish open communication with the siblings about your child with autism
Even if the siblings don’t verbalize it, they feel the extra stress that comes along with having a child with autism in the home. As the siblings get older, their special needs sister or brother can do embarrassing things, and life can be pretty unfair when the child with autism always dictates the family’s schedule. Allowing the sibling to come to you and share how they feel without judgment will open the opportunity to provide encouragement to overcome this adversity. “Special needs siblings learn to deal with criticism and intolerance early in their lives,” stated MariAnn Gattelaro, M.S., CRC, LPC. Both of which will serve them well in the real world.
4. Encourage the siblings to form friendships with other siblings of special needs kids
“Just like adults, kids benefit from a support network of friends who understand and share the same experiences,” said Sibshop Facilitator, Rose Henke. We, as parents, seek out other parents of kids with autism because we need to feel less alone. Somehow we are more able to cope when we know there are others going through the same difficulties. The siblings will feel less isolated when they connect with someone their age who understands what they are going through.
5. Give the siblings grace, too
It is easy to give the child with autism the benefit of the doubt because any action can be blamed on the disability. “Special needs siblings often feel like they need to overcompensate. They feel they are not allowed to make mistakes or cause problems because their parents have bigger issues to deal with,” said Ms. Gattelaro. Let the siblings know that they are allowed to be human, and your love is unconditional.
6. Allow the siblings to be part of the “team”
I remember a time when my son was begging for his own therapist because he felt so left out. Giving siblings simple tasks to help your special needs child allows them to become part of the “team.” Sometimes love must be fostered before it becomes a choice. With encouragement, my son became our best therapist doing silly play and engaging his sister in ways no one else could. Today they have a beautiful relationship that is beneficial to them both. It touches my heart to see my daughter’s love for her brother and to know he will always choose to take care of her.
Julie Hornok is a writer, wife, mom, and passionate advocate for families living with autism. Her works have been seen in The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Thrive Magazine, Autism Spot, Literary Mama (Oct. 2017) and many more publications. She also received Honorable Mention in the Memoirs/Personal Essay category of the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition (2017). When she is not busy driving her three kids all over town, she loves to give back to the community by planning special needs events.
This article was featured in Issue 71 – Navigating A New Year