Learning that your child has autism can be overwhelming for any parent. The diagnosis affects not only your little one, but the rest of the family as well, requiring adjustments to the family dynamic. The relationship between any siblings comes with unique challenges. If you have a child with ASD and one (or more) unaffected by the disorder, the sibling without ASD may fell left out especially since a child with ASD can consume a lot of your time and energy. You are not only faced with doing what is best for your child with ASD, but making sure that the needs of your other children are met as well.

Siblings are generally the most frequently available play partners. Fostering a good relationship between siblings with and without ASD involves finding ways they can play together or finding shared interests. Because of the nature of autism, your child’s attempts to play with his or her sibling with ASD may fall flat due to their sibling ignoring their bids for attention, their lack of play skills, or their restricted interests. Additionally, a child with ASD may struggle to bond with their siblings and feel isolated in their own right. Let your child without ASD know that they can play a special role in helping their sibling in a variety of ways. It does not matter what the activity is, as long as they do it together!

Here are just some examples:

• Joining in play with their sibling’s favorite toys

• Teaching their sibling how to play with a toy by using it appropriately and encouraging their sibling to try the same thing

• Asking their sibling simple questions and waiting for an answer before play can continue

• Singing favorite songs, blowing bubbles or doing puzzles

• Reading or looking at books

• Rolling a ball back and forth or playing catch

• Helping with homework or completing household tasks together such as cleaning their rooms or setting the table

• Building forts, playing with stuffed animals or trains

• Watching movies or cooking activities

• Playground or other outdoor activities

• Finger painting or other hands-on arts and crafts projects

• Older children might enjoy being the “teacher” of play and learning basic teaching strategies such as ensuring they have their sibling’s attention, giving simple instructions, and praising good play

• Make everyday activities into a game (e.g.: unloading the groceries or a race to see who can put their clothes into the washer the fastest)

Siblings of a child with ASD are often dealing with the same feelings that you as a parent do. They may struggle with feelings of confusion and frustration often at an age before they have developed adequate coping skills. Your children will likely develop the longest lasting relationship with their sibling with ASD and therefore need guidance and support from the start. The following describe some strategies to help support your child without ASD as well as some ways to facilitate positive relationships between your child with ASD and their siblings.

— Explain the diagnosis. All children ask questions and pick up information here and there. You might be surprised at how little they actually know. They might have more questions than answers and it is important that they have a good understanding of what autism means for their sibling. This will help prepare them for when their peers begin to ask questions as well.

—Fairness. In all families there are perceived inconsistencies in fairness. From daily household tasks, to mealtime requirements and bedtimes, children are aware of who gets more or less of something. When a child has ASD, the perceived unfairness at home can seem enormous to their sibling. Explaining various therapies, provided one on one time for each and having everyone participate in daily chores (no matter how small) will reassure your child without ASD that everyone is just as important and loved.

— Attention. Children with ASD often have very busy schedules between school, therapy appointments and in-home services. Children do not always recognize that their sibling is engaging in hard work. They may feel that their sibling is getting more love and attention. Try to give each of your children uninterrupted “parent” time as often as possible.

— Reach out. If needed, provide opportunities for your child to interact with other siblings of children with ASD. Research support groups of “Sibling Shops” in your area.

Don’t forget! Siblings should be given choices as to how they are going to help or be involved. It is important for them to have free time to be themselves. It often isn’t easy being the sibling of someone with ASD but it can also be a very rewarding, lifelong relationship!

To learn more about Northeast Arc’s Autism ABA Services, click here.