My 8-year-old son with autism loves his little brother and wants to play with him, but he has difficulty sharing, is overly-affectionate, and his screaming is so off-putting. How can I encourage their relationship as siblings?
I love that you want to help foster the brotherly bond between your boys! It can be so hard for kids to understand why their special needs sibling doesn’t play with them the way they would like them to. And helping kids with autism develop appropriate social interaction skills is no easy task! But here are some things you can try:
1. Social Stories!
Social stories can be used for any type of situation and can be perfectly tailored to your child. For your son, it can focus on using his calm voice, keeping his hands to himself, asking for hugs (instead of just giving them), turn taking, sharing, etc. Use specifics like your sons’ names, the games they play together, and what will happen if he uses his calm voice and takes turns (i.e.: brother will feel so happy, mommy will be proud of me, I will earn a cookie, etc). Use fun pictures and read the story to him before he plays with his brother. You can even read it multiple times per day.
2. Prompt sharing.
Start very small, maybe just five seconds. Use a toy or item that your son likes and make a game of sharing. Prompt him to hand it to his brother then count out loud “1..2..3..4..5, OK, your turn!” Once he’s able to do small lengths of time you can increase it. Do this very gradually.
3. Practice appropriate touching.
Your son is expressing affection, which is great, but we need to teach him how to do it appropriately. Practice gentle hugs; soft and light. Teach high fives or other forms of touch which may be less scary for your younger son.
4. Find mutual interests.
If both boys are interested in Legos, for example, use that to help strengthen their bond. Comment on the similarities between them. “Wow, you like the red Legos? Big brother does too!” “Whoa, did you build a tower? Can you help add a red Lego to the top?” Point out what makes them the same, and work to find activities they will both enjoy.
5. Provide other screaming opportunities.
Encourage activities where you son can appropriately scream or yell. Sounds weird, I know. But if your son engages in screaming anyway, let’s find a way to make it more socially acceptable. For example, tickling him, bouncing on a trampoline, pillow fights, etc.. By finding activities where both of your sons can be appropriately loud it may help your younger son be less annoyed by the screaming.
6. Create brotherly traditions.
Come up with routines the boys can do together. It can be as small as singing songs in the bath together, or racing to the front door whenever you get home from an errand. Maybe it’s something they do every day, or maybe it’s something they can do every week. Perhaps something like their favorite dessert on Friday nights. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something BOTH boys really enjoy.
I hope these tips help. For more ideas, you can seek out social-skills groups in your area. Oftentimes, siblings of special needs children can participate in these groups and serve as typically developing peer models. Keep up the good work, Priya!
Angelina works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges.
This article was featured in Issue 52 – Celebrating the Voices of Autism