Siblings of children with ASD need support of their own, but may also be able to help give support as well.
When so much of your attention goes to caring for your child with autism, it is natural to worry that your typically-developing children are not getting the attention they want or need. Some parents may worry about their children having healthy, reciprocal relationships with each other. It has become evident that these concerns are legitimate and felt by parents all over. However, with the tide turning towards family-centered practices for early intervention, there are some great indications that your child’s therapy can address these sibling needs as well.
Typically-developing siblings might not understand why their brother or sister is different, or why they’re going to therapy and getting extra attention. Studies have suggested that relationships between children with ASD and their siblings can be characterized by less closeness and reciprocity. Siblings may have trouble playing together and sharing information with each other. Addressing these problems can promote healthier relationships between your children, and it can contribute to communication gains in your child with ASD as well.
What does the research show?
While the relationships between children with ASD and their siblings may not be “typical,” they can be just as rewarding, educational, and complex. Having a sibling with ASD promotes acceptance and adjustment, and decreases competitiveness. Some preliminary studies have addressed the effectiveness of sibling interventions on sibling and ASD-focused outcomes. Several years ago, Suzannah Ferraioli and colleagues taught play interventions to siblings of children with ASD. By the end of the 3-month study, the sibling with ASD improved their play and communication skills with their sibling-interventionist. Typically-developing siblings were not only taught how to play, but why they were playing that way; their role in helping their sibling was made clear. Lauren Kryzak and colleagues more recently created an intervention consisting of a support group for typically-developing children, clinician-led play sessions between siblings, and individualized intervention for children with ASD. By the end of the intervention, sibling reports of negative self-esteem and anxiety decreased. More studies are needed to fully understand the potential of sibling-led interventions and its full effects on sibling relationships, but studies such as these are promising.
What can I do now?
Educating your typically-developing child about Autism by having open, honest discussions can help them understand why their sibling acts as they do and how to best interact with them. It can also help siblings who feel underappreciated to understand why their sibling with ASD may need a little more attention from parents at times. Encouraging your children to play together could also foster a more inclusive environment and give your typically-developing child the attention they may be craving. All in all, involving your typically-developing children in their sibling’s treatment can promote healthy relationships and even lead to gains in your child’s communication and play behaviors.
Ferraioli, S. J., Hansford, A., & Harris, S. L. (2012). Benefits of Including Siblings in the Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 19(3), 413–422.
Kryzak, L. A., Cengher, M., Feeley, K. M., Fienup, D. M., & Jones, E. A. (2015). A community support program for children with autism and their typically developing siblings Initial investigation. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 19(2), 159–177.
Tsao, L.-L., Davenport, R., & Schmiege, C. (2011). Supporting Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Early Childhood Education Journal, 40(1), 47–54.