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Helping siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder

Being the sibling of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be both a challenging and enriching experience. Here are some ideas for looking after typically developing siblings of children with ASD, ensuring they get your time and attention, and helping them understand more about ASD.

Parenting siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder

Having a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can make it difficult to find time for the needs of your other children. You might sometimes feel guilty or anxious about how you’re doing.

But don’t be too hard on yourself – there are some simple things you can do every day to nurture your other children.

Explaining autism spectrum disorder to siblings

It’s a good idea to start explaining autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to your typically developing children as soon as you think they can understand, or as soon as they’re old enough to notice their brother or sister is behaving differently from other children. This helps children adjust to their sibling’s disability, and avoids mistaken ideas about ASD.

As children get older and better able to understand, you’ll find they need more information and will ask more complicated questions about ASD.

How to explain ASD

  • Find out what your children know already. Keep answers to any questions simple. Ask questions about your children’s feelings. Be prepared to explain things several times.
  • Use language and ideas that suit your children’s ages and levels of understanding. Use basic terms or simple descriptions of ASD characteristics.
  • It’s OK to tell very young children that their sibling ‘can’t do something’ because their sibling hasn’t learned how to or ‘doesn’t understand’.

What children know about ASD
Even when children know a bit about ASD in general, they often don’t know much about how ASD affects their siblings in particular.

Children of different ages understand ASD in different ways. A five-year-old might see ASD as the reason why a sibling can’t write. A 17-year-old is more likely to see ASD as an obstacle to a sibling having a ‘normal life’.

Children sometimes have mistaken ideas about their sibling’s ASD. They might think ASD is something you can ‘catch’ like a cold. Younger children might even think that they have caused their sibling’s ASD through bad behaviour or bad thoughts. You can help them with these thoughts by talking with them and explaining things.

Effects of autism spectrum disorder on siblings

Generally, siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) adjust well. Often, siblings of children with disability are more caring, compassionate, independent and tolerant. 

But your typically developing children can experience a range of difficult or negative feelings too. For example, at different times they might feel:

  • jealous of the amount of time that you’re spending with their sibling
  • discouraged because their sibling doesn’t seem to want to play with them
  • angry if they think you have different expectations of them and their sibling – for example, they might feel you let their sibling get out of household chores or get away with aggressive behaviour
  • protective of their sibling and angry if others make fun
  • embarrassed by people staring or by unwanted attention during family outings
  • guilty for having negative feelings, like embarrassment or anger, towards their sibling
  • concerned that the added stress is affecting your wellbeing and your relationship with your partner – for example, some children might worry that you and your partner might separate or divorce 
  • concerned or resentful about any future roles as carers for their sibling.

Helping siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder

Just like your child with ASD, your other children need your attention. Here are some ways you can give your typically developing children everyday warmth and positive attention, help them feel special and encourage positive relationships among all your children.

Making special time for siblings
Siblings of children with ASD often don’t seek attention or talk about their own problems. To overcome this, you can:

  • set aside regular daily times for your children – it might be a bedtime story, or 10 minutes together at the end of each day when you tell your children three positive things they did in the day
  • take a few minutes to listen when your children want to tell you something – this can help if you can’t set aside regular time each day
  • make time for special activities with your children, without their sibling with ASD – this could be taking your children to the swimming pool or a movie
  • use a trusted babysitter or respite carer to look after your child with ASD for a day or weekend – this way you can spend a longer period with your other children.

You might feel that it’s unfair to spend more time with your child with ASD than your other children. But the important thing is to make your other children feel special during their time with you, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, like when you pick them up from school, or at bedtime. 

If your other children feel that they’re also special to you, they’ll come to understand the situation more and more as they get older. They’ll be less likely to feel resentful towards their sibling.

Encouraging closer relationships
Siblings of children with ASD generally feel positive about their brothers or sisters, but often their relationships are not as close as they could be. This might be because of the difficulties children with ASD often have with social communication. 

One way to encourage closer relationships among your children is to look for ways that they can all play, have fun and interact together. For example, many young children with ASD love blowing bubbles and playing with trains – these are activities their brothers and sisters can enjoy too.

Trying to be fair
It’s important for your children to feel they’re all treated fairly:

It can be tempting to ignore behaviour like hitting or throwing in your child with ASD because this child ‘doesn’t understand’, or it’s just ‘too hard’. But your child’s siblings could see this as unfair, and feel resentful or upset as a result.

Setting up family roles and responsibilities
All your children can contribute to your family life. Helping around your home helps everyone pull together as a family and teaches all children important independence skills. It’s just a matter of working out roles and responsibilities that are appropriate for your children’s different ages and abilities.

Your typically developing children can do household tasks and chores like making their beds, washing dishes, folding the clothes and so on. Your child with ASD can take on more responsibilities with age too. For example, this child might be able to get placemats out and put them on the dinner table.

It might be tempting to rely on your other children or expect them to take on extra responsibilities. It’s important to be fair, though, and to remember that your other children need time just to be children.

Managing negative feelings
While they’re learning and adjusting to their sibling’s ASD, your other children might have negative feelings about how they’re being treated. They might feel hurt, resentful, anxious or sad.

Here are some ways to help them with these feelings:

  • Be aware of your children’s feelings and acknowledge them – for example, if your child says, ‘I hate playing with Jamie, he takes my toys,’ you could say ‘That must be really frustrating’.
  • Communicate with your children about their feelings in a non-judgmental way – for example, you might say ‘I’m not cross with you. Can you tell me what happened and how that made you feel?’
  • Work together to come up with some positive outlets for your children’s feelings.  For example, your children might like to draw or paint to express their feelings.
  • Share your own feelings to help your typically developing children understand that their feelings are normal – for example, you might say that you feel embarrassed sometimes too.
  • Talk with another family member or friend about what’s happening. Speaking with another grown-up can ease your mind and help you find solutions.
  • If you need help managing siblings or their feelings, seek assistance from a professional, like your GP, a child psychologist or a counsellor.

Encouraging a support network outside your family

At times, your other children might feel overwhelmed by family life, especially if they have a sibling with severe behaviour difficulties. Friendships outside the family can help your children feel they’re more than just the siblings of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Joining a sibling support group can help them to realise they’re not alone and understand that what they’re feeling is normal. Counselling can also be a good idea, if children are having a hard time coping.

Support groups
Joining an ASD family support group is a great way to meet and form friendships with other people in similar situations to yours. It can also give your typically developing children the opportunity to get to know other siblings of children with ASD.

You can visit the Autism Service Pathfinder to find more information about support for you and your family. Or you could check out our forum for parents of children with ASD.

Video

How autism spectrum disorder affects siblings

3:36

In this short video, parents talk about the impact of their child’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on the child’s siblings. They say it’s sometimes hard, but they also praise the way their other children interact with and care for their siblings with ASD. They note that sibling relationships can be especially good for children with ASD, and you can help build these relationships.

All these mums and dads say it’s very important it is to give all children love, time and attention, and they suggest ways you can do this.

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Last updated or reviewed
31-01-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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