A typical sibling relationship is a bag of mixed emotions. Among themselves, siblings might tease, prank and bicker. But when it comes to fighting against the world, they are the best allies and the staunchest supporters one can ask for. One thing, however, holds true for every sibling relationship – it has a profound impact on an individual’s life. Having an autistic sibling adds multiple different facets to this relationship. It can be deeply enriching in some ways and incredibly challenging in others.
Raising a set of siblings with both neurotypical and neurodiverse children can also be difficult for the parents. Accounts of such family dynamics have one thing in common – parents constantly feel guilty of not spending enough time with all their children. The typically developing children often feel neglected when most of their parents’ time is spent on tending to the special needs of their autistic siblings. Such feelings can end up putting a strain on the relationship between neurotypical children and their atypical siblings. In the long run, it can also have a negative impact on their mental health.
Since October is mental health awareness month, we will take an in-depth look into the many ways in which parents can support the wellbeing of their neurotypical children with autistic siblings:
Explaining autism to the typically developing child is the most important step in making sure that they understand the sibling and their special needs. It is important to do this from early childhood or as soon as they notice a behavioural difference between them and their siblings.
Instead of simply telling them that their sibling is ‘special,’ give them accurate information about autism in a way that is appropriate for them. A good resource for this can be books written by authors with autistic siblings or those who are themselves autistic. This will help them make better sense of how the disorder affects their sibling and of their unusual behaviour. Be prepared to answer any questions that they might have and keep an open mind about their doubts.
Involve them in care
While it is important to encourage them to support their autistic sibling in a way that they are comfortable with, refrain from forcing them into it. As soon as it starts to feel like a chore that they must perform, they will start developing a negative outlook towards it. They might also begin to feel resentment about their role as a caregiver for their sibling in the future. This is especially prone to happen if the parents keep insisting that the responsibility of the autistic child will fall on the neurotypical one when they are not around. This is all the more important in case if the autistic child falls on the severe end of the spectrum.
Handle their negative emotions delicately. Don’t invalidate their feelings by saying things like ‘you have to understand,’ or ‘you must do it.’ Instead, try saying things like, ‘I know you feel frustrated, sometimes I feel like that too.’ Knowing what they’re feeling is normal will help them work through it better.
Strengthen their bond
Typically developing young children might find it difficult to bond with their autistic siblings for many reasons. For instance, if their attempts to involve them in play are met with a refusal, or if the autistic sibling simply lacks the skills required for pretend play. Abrupt tantrums or meltdowns of your autistic child can be frightening for your other child. You must never force their typically developing child to stop undertaking certain activities just because the atypical child might not enjoy them. Instead, involve them in figuring out a plan of action that fulfills both their needs.
One effective way to deal with this is by teaching them how to communicate with each other. Look for common ground and find ways to engage them in fun activities together. It is also important to reinforce fair treatment of all the siblings. Set at least a few clear rules and boundaries that are consistent across all the siblings.
Along with planning family time, it is also important for each parent to prioritise one-on-one time with their neurotypical children. You can use this time to indulge in activities that the atypical child might not enjoy. For instance, watching a movie in a theatre or visiting an amusement park. This can prove helpful in establishing that they’re special too, that their feelings matter too.
Not only will this boost their sense of belonging, but it will also improve their relationship with their sibling. It will also prevent them from indulging in attention-seeking behaviour.
Siblings who share a special bond are a source of companionship for life. Growing up with an autistic sibling can be a tumultuous journey, but most siblings handle it well. They might even surprise you with a level of love, patience, and empathy that is rare among children their age. But none of this will be possible without the right parental support.
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