For a typically developing child, having an autistic brother or sister can be a complex experience. Because autism is such a unique condition; with no two children sharing the exact set of experiences of living with autism – similarly, every sibling of an autistic child goes through challenges that are unique.
For example, a study conducted in India analyzed the lived experiences of siblings of individuals with ASD. The researchers found that the lived experiences of these siblings were diverse in nature (Viswanathan et al., 2021).
Despite the differences, the researchers identified some common themes in trying to better understand these lived experiences. One theme identified was that the siblings were aware that their sibling was different; however, they did not have an understanding of the condition that caused these differences.
Another important theme observed was that the older siblings tended to minimize their own emotions, normalize their experiences, and focus on positive experiences. This is similar to the processes of grief reactions, where certain coping mechanisms and acceptance strategies are utilized in order to deal with a loss of something significant.
The siblings in the current study also showcased mixed feelings when it came to the diverse roles that they had to perform. At times, the sibling had to take on the role of a parent for his autistic brother or sister. This experience was accompanied by a sense of pride paired with regret over not having an adequate social life.
These were just a few of the themes out of the many identified by the researchers. This research, along with many others, addresses some important issues and highlights the needs and changes that can be made to help provide siblings of ASD individuals with the adequate support that they may need.
As parents here are a few tips that you can implement to help your typically developing child:
An adequate understanding of ASD is a must
A lot of uncertainty and anxiety comes from unawareness. It is important that your child has an understanding of their sibling’s condition as well as the unique quirks that may come along with it. Once your child is aware of their sibling’s condition, it will be a lot easier for them to make sense of the autism-specific traits that they may observe.
It is also important that this understanding be developmentally appropriate. What this essentially means is that the information that you choose to provide to your child be suitable to their age and level of understanding.
Siblings need a safe space to discuss their feelings & worries
Growing up with a neurodivergent sibling is surely an incomparable experience for a typically developing sibling. While there are experiences that are special, your child may also have days that are frustrating and challenging. During these times they may need someone to share their concerns with.
As a parent, you can create an open and honest space for your child to share their feelings and experiences. Talk to your child about any uncomfortable emotions that they may be feeling. For example, if your child is angry at their sibling for snatching his/her toy away; you can let him/her know that it is completely alright to feel angry and that you understand the reason why.
Validating their emotions and frustrations in a nonjudgmental manner will help them realize that their feelings are valid and it is OK to feel the way they do.
Schedule quality time with your typically developing child
Raising a child with special needs comes with some extra challenges and difficulties. Going to doctor’s appointments, accompanying them to play dates, helping them with their daily routine are just some of the things that a parent needs to look after on a daily basis.
This, in turn, might make your typically developing child feel as though you aren’t paying them enough attention and cause them to feel neglected. That is why it is important to schedule one-on-one time with your child.
Make sure that this scheduled time is just for them. You can play a game or do an activity of your child’s choosing during this time. You can also go out for a meal with your child or take them to the park.
Opportunities to connect with others going through a similar situation
Having someone going through a similar situation to talk to or read about could provide comfort for your typically developing child. Other siblings’ experiences of living with an autistic sibling could prove to be inspirational as well as a great learning experience for your child.
A sibling support group could be incredibly beneficial for your child. The next best thing would be having your child interact or spend time with other typically developing siblings of autistic children. Another great option would be reading stories or watching videos about others in similar circumstances.
As a parent, you play an important role in cultivating a positive relationship between your children. However, it may be important to keep in mind that this relationship will go through certain challenges now and again. Know that these challenges are completely normal and it is possible to overcome them. Your patience, love, and support may just be the key to conquering these hurdles.
Sometimes, things may seem overwhelming and you may feel that your typically developing child needs some extra help adjusting to their circumstances. It is OK to seek professional help to guide your child through any difficulties that they may be facing.
Viswanathan, P., Kishore, M. T., & Seshadri, S. P. (2021). Lived Experiences of Siblings of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in India: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 02537176211029111.