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ASD and Siblings
This article originally appeared in START Connecting in April 2020.
Each child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is unique in personality, abilities, and challenges. ASD presents in a wide variety of ways with varying levels of impact on communication, social interactions, and behavior. While ASD affects the individual, it also has an impact on family dynamics. This is especially true for sibling relationships. Brothers and sisters with or without ASD have distinct ways of interacting with each other and their relationship can grow and change over time.
During a period of extended time together in the home, such as during a health pandemic (COVID-19), siblings can be great social partners for their brother or sister with ASD. It is important parents set these situations up for success by talking with siblings, encouraging their involvement, recognizing and praising positive interactions, and acknowledging both the siblings and their brother or sister with ASD have specific needs. Each may have their own feelings of fear, anxiety, or loneliness.
Here are some considerations for families and parents who have both children with ASD and siblings without ASD:
- Teach siblings about ASD. This can help with understanding how and why their brother or sister communicates, socializes, and behaves the way they do. This will need to be done on an ongoing basis as both the sibling and child with ASD develop and change. Always consider the age and level of understanding of the sibling when talking with him or her about ASD. Resources are even available for younger children.
- Convey that children with ASD are much like their siblings and other same age children, but have different needs. Discuss similarities and differences.
- Use simple and concrete terms for explanations. For example, letting younger children know their brother or sister may have a harder time talking or communicating and a different way of learning. Change may also be difficult or certain noises, sounds, smells, or other sensory inputs may be upsetting to them.
- Focus on positive traits related to ASD. Emphasize that their brother or sister with ASD may be very good at paying attention to detail, can closely follow rules, has a strong sense of honesty, and/or has excellent memory skills.
- Express that ASD is something a person is born with and it is not contagious. The cause of ASD is not fully understood but is being researched and finding a cause can help with improving treatments.
- Assure siblings understand they are not alone; many people have family members with ASD or other disabilities and they have ups and downs but they manage and learn from each other. Nurture discussions about their feelings and encourage questions and optimistic thinking.
- Spend individual and dedicated time with siblings when they have undivided parental attention; this can be a few minutes to several hours. This can help promote feelings of security and belonging.
- Facilitate interaction with siblings and the child with ASD. Model communication, prompting, feedback, and praise. Siblings can be great role models and play partners. Encourage positive social interactions through games both children enjoy. Keep activities short initially, and end on a positive note. Prime the sibling beforehand about possible challenges and how to deal with them. For example, the child with ASD might have difficulty with losing, so it can be helpful to share information with the sibling about what to expect and strategies you are going to use that could help their sibling accept losing.
- Sibling activities might look different depending on the age of the children involved. Parents can encourage social interactions through indoor or outdoor games promoting turn taking, supporting learning (such as colors, numbers, animals, etc.), and engaging in physical and enjoyable activities related to areas of interest. For younger children, simple board or card games such as Memory or Candyland may be in order. For older children, engaging in yard games such as Corn Hole or ring toss may be options.
- Consider a sibling’s perspective of fairness and address it as needed. It may be easy for a sibling to feel treated unfairly if their brother or sister with ASD is being treated differently. Maintain expectations for children with and without ASD and adjust according to the age and capabilities of each. Acknowledge and praise effort by both children. An example is having an expectation both children will pick up their rooms. The accommodation might be the child with ASD may have fewer items to pick up (at least initially) or may receive more help.
- Respect the sibling’s need for privacy, safety, and alone time. This is especially important if the sibling with ASD has challenging behaviors. Reassure and help the sibling understand their brother or sister is having a hard time with change, communicating, doing a task, or other situation, and how to communicate and what actions they can take during these situations.
- Read, view, and access credible resources which might help siblings better understand ASD, their feelings, and how to communicate about their brother’s or sister’s challenges.
- An important point to remember - siblings are together for a lifetime.
While it is important for siblings to understand more about ASD, there is also research showing that siblings of people with disabilities, including ASD, tend to be more mature, are dedicated and loyal friends, learn greater tolerance skills, and are accepting of differences among people. Having a sibling with ASD can be a unique and rewarding experience.
Written by: Stacie Rulison, M.S., M.Ed., BCBA
Find more information & additional sibling resources:
Resources with interactive activities for children & teens:
*Many of the games can be modified to accommodate different age-appropriate interactions