Living with autism can be challenging for all family members at times. It's important not to forget the needs of brothers and sisters of the child with autism. It's not uncommon for them to feel angry or negative towards their sibling who might spoil games, make a noise, destroy things and cause embarrassment when out and about. They also may feel guilty about having these feelings.
School-age children want to fit in and feel the same as everybody else so they may not want to bring friends home. Depending on the challenges your child with autism faces family life can be very restricted. It is very frustrating siblings have family outings curtailed and when parents refuse to go to events that may cause anxiety for the child with autism. For example school fetes, bonfire night and birthday parties.
Siblings can feel a sense of family fragmentation because parents often try to divide their time between the person with autism and their siblings. Siblings may feel that they are second best because they have to compete for parental time and attention. Quite often a lot of time and energy is devoted to the child with autism, leaving their sibling feeling they are never given priority. This sibling frustration can come out as aggression or withdrawal. It is not uncommon for sibling behaviour to deteriorate as an attention seeking strategy. This ultimately causes parents further stress.
Conversely some siblings put pressure on themselves and feel they have to be good at everything to counteract the difficulties with their brother or sister. Siblings of children with autism often find themselves helping mum and dad with the difficulties their brother or sister have and they may find themselves in the role of the young carer. Support and information for young carers can be on the www.carers.org website.
Many siblings of children with autism hide their fears because they don't want their parents to worry further. Two common fears are about what will happen when their parents die and will they have an autistic child themselves.
How to help siblings
- Give them some special one-to-one parent time away from their other siblings including the one(s) with autism.
- Provide opportunities for siblings to meet other brothers and sisters of individuals with autism so they can share their experiences and emotions.
- Give them time to pursue their own interests without guilt.
- Help them to understand they are not alone with these feelings.
- Plan for the future and share this plan so they don’t feel burdened with responsibility.
- Seek out support services for the whole family e.g. a young carers group or short-term respite.
- Help them to understand that it's okay to express anger and feelings of unfairness.
Although they may feel they had a tough time during childhood, most siblings do not suffer damage from the experience. They grow up as well adjusted, caring individuals who may well go into professions where they can make effective use of their experience of growing up with autism.
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