Advice for Siblings of Those With Autism
Having a sibling isn’t always easy. You’re expected to share everything, including your parents’ time. The sibling relationship can be more complex when your brother or sister has autism.
Some siblings of autism-impacted people handle the pressure with ease. But if you struggle, you’re not alone.
When you’re struggling with issues related to having a sibling with autism, conversation is your secret weapon. The more you talk about your concerns, the better others can help you.
You can also take steps on your own to make things easier, both for you and your sibling.
Learn All You Can
You probably already know a good amount about autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Your parents likely talked to you about it. But there’s more you can learn to aid your understanding of your brother or sister.
The word spectrum in ASD refers to the variability of the disorder. Some people have all of the classic symptoms, and others have only a few. Sometimes, the problems are severe, and sometimes, they’re not.
Most people with autism have difficulties with:
- Communication. Some people with autism don’t talk at all, and others prefer to speak only about the things that interest them. Your sibling may rely on pictures or other tools to make their wishes known.
- Sensory information. Loud noises, strong scents, and bright lights can cause ASD disorientation. Your sibling may also resist touch.
- Restriction. People with autism often have narrow interests, and they find comfort in rituals that do not change very often.
- Social interactions. Many people with autism long for close connections with others. But they may struggle to make friends.
Your parents probably covered these basic signs and symptoms with you. Experts recommend that older siblings chat with professionals about the diagnosis.
Schedule a meeting with your school’s special education needs coordinator or guidance counselor. Or ask to talk with your sibling’s therapist. Ask for a professional’s insight on how your sibling acts and reacts. The information could help to strengthen your relationship.
Then, ask your parents if you can join in your sibling’s formal therapy sessions. Researchers say therapists can do a lot to help siblings strengthen their bonds and understand one another. You might use your therapy sessions to:
- Learn communication styles. Your sibling might use eye contact, body posture, or gentle touch to get your attention. These prompts can fly by in a second, and you might miss them.
- Engage in activities. It’s hard to find tasks you both enjoy, and it’s equally difficult to ensure everyone has a good time. Therapists can help.
- Understand each other. Asking questions, summarizing statements, and checking for understanding help you connect.
Sitting in on a sibling’s therapy session may help you build your empathy skills. For example, if you watch your sibling work through an applied behavior analysis session, you might see how hard it is for the person you love to do something simple, like brushing their teeth. You might also see how hard your sibling works to get that task right. You could emerge from the session feeling even more proud of your sibling than you do now.
Build a Supportive Network
You’re not alone. Even on your most difficult days, you’re surrounded by people who can help you. Strengthen that community of support, so you’ll have even more resources to lean on when you need them.
Your supportive community can include:
- Your parents. Feelings of guilt, anger, and concern are normal, and your parents expect you to move through those emotions. Talk with them about how you feel, and ask for their advice to help you work through your feelings.
- A counselor. Researchers say it’s common for siblings of autism-impacted people to have mental health challenges. It’s possible the genes that cause autism in your sibling spark your own tendency for depression or anxiety, or the pressure you feel as a sibling might make you vulnerable to challenges. If you’re struggling, a therapist can give you the help you need to feel better.
- Peer support. You’re not the only sibling of a person with autism in the world. In fact, you’re probably not the only one in your community. Ask your parents or counselors to connect you with other families just like yours. Ask how they handle the challenges you face. Peer support like this can help you feel less alone, and you just might pick up a few coping mechanisms you can use.
Own Your Emotions
Raising a child with autism can be hard on families. Your parents may have days packed with appointments, consultations, and tasks. You, in turn, may feel pressured to be the perfect child that causes no problems.
Bottling up your feelings can lead to unexpected consequences. You could fly into a rage at your sibling, or you could struggle in your classes at school.
Recognize that your feelings are valid. It’s common to feel like your brother or sister gets away with everything while you are ignored. You might feel angry, jealous, or frustrated.
Your parents are encouraged to give you grace. They know you can’t be perfect all the time, and they don’t expect that from you.
Give yourself the same grace. Accept your emotions on your bad days, and use techniques like yoga or meditation to let the bad memories go. Wake up each morning with forgiveness for what happened yesterday and a promise to do your best today.
Strengthen Your Relationship
Draw closer to your sibling, and some of your feelings of resentment and anger might slide away. In fact, you might discover that you enjoy your brother or sister a lot.
Build your bond by:
- Dedicating time. Set aside an hour or two each week to interact with your brother or sister. Ask your parents to add that to the family calendar, so no one forgets and everyone knows it’s important. Treat this day like you would any other important appointment. Arrive with an open heart, and resolve to enjoy the experience.
- Finding an activity you both enjoy. Connecting over a task is rewarding. Put together a simple puzzle, play a game, ride a bike around the yard, or find another task you can do together.
- Accepting your sibling. You wish your brother or sister could talk with you, or you want your connection to come easily. That’s reasonable. But at the moment, there is no cure for autism. As hard as your sibling works in therapy, the condition will always be there. Instead of focusing on what you don’t like, focus on the things you love about your sibling.
- Asking for help. It’s not always easy to form a relationship with someone with ASD, says the Autism Society. Your attempts at conversation could be met with silence or hand flapping. Your sibling might even walk away from you. If you can’t break through, ask your parents or your sibling’s therapist for advice on what to do next.
Remember to take a break when you need to. If you’re angry or upset, you could say or do things to your sibling that you’ll regret later. Walk away and come back again when you feel calm and relaxed.
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- Strengthening Families by Involving Siblings in Autism Treatment. (April 2020). The ASHA Leader.
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- Siblings of Children With Autism Have Social, Emotional Problems. (October 2018). Spectrum.
- Caring for Siblings of Children With Autism. Operation Autism.
- Having an Autistic Sibling. National Autistic Society.
- The Best Ways to Support Siblings of Autistic Children. Autism Parenting Magazine.
- A Sibling’s Guide to Autism. (2018). Autism Speaks.
- Siblings. Autism Society.