When Austin learned that his brother, Joey, had autism he didn’t really understand what that meant. He was five at the time and his brother was three. He basically just thought his brother acted weird. As time went on, an imbalance of attention went to Joey because of his ASD…
This often left Austin feeling alone, jealous, and gave him the sense that his parents loved his brother more than him. Austin isn’t unusual. As one parent related about his neurotypical child, “He’d get very upset when he would bump his knee or complain of feeling sick. He thought we weren’t sufficiently concerned about him, in the spirit of ‘I could be over here dying, and all you care about is Charlie.”
As a parent dealing with all the complex issues of autism, it can be exhausting. It can also drain you of your energy, time, and resources. Having a child with special needs, however, doesn’t negate the fact that your other children need you too. The reality is, a child with autism just needs more of everything. What can you do then to make sure your other children feel they are important too and not let them fall through the cracks?
Here are five tips that can help your neurotypical child not feel left behind:
Acknowledge Their Needs and Let Them Know They are Heard and Noticed
If you look out of the eyes of your neurotypical child, they see all your time and attention going to their sibling with autism. In your heart of hearts you don’t mean to neglect your other children, it’s just that the immediate urgent sometimes trumps the important.
In this case the urgent may be your son (with autism) demanding that you cut the bread on his sandwich in exact pieces, with the crust off, only one spoon of peanut butter and no jam because he doesn’t like the texture, slice his apple without peel in exactly eight pieces, and only give him the plain crackers…
All the while your daughter sits quietly in the corner waiting for help tying her shoes. All you’re trying to do is feed your son in a way that won’t cause an upset and to keep things peaceful, but what your daughter observes is that she asked five minutes ago for help and you didn’t look at her. Meanwhile she is still waiting while you attend to her brother’s needs. Again.
The difficulty with delayed attention is that it’s compounded over weeks, months, and years. All those little moments when you back-burnered your neurotypical child’s needs to address her brother’s becomes a huge file of memories tucked away in her brain under the heading “favoritism and neglect” as the years pass.
What can you do? Stop for just a moment and acknowledge your other child’s need. Even if you can’t help right at that moment, they will at least know you see them, assuring them they aren’t invisible. Dr. Cindy Ariel, autism expert, said, “You can be sensitive to your daughter’s need for attention from you and give her extra attention when and where you can. You can check in with her even though you know all is well.”
Carve Out Some Special One on One Time
Having a date with mom or dad – just the two, or maybe three of you – will give your child something to look forward to and will help them feel uniquely special, not just another cog in this wheel we call family. This can become even more important when your attention is unequally divided between your neurotypical children and a child with autism.
One way to create a special time, for instance, is to set aside a day of the week that you take your child out for an ice cream, pizza, or to the playground while you leave your child with autism at home with a trusted caretaker or other parent.
This ritual gives your neurotypical child a chance to have you all to themselves. It’s also a time you can check in with them to see how they are doing without any interruptions. You can also use this time to schedule discussions for any issues that have come up during the week. Once your child knows they have a chance to be alone with you and be heard, this can reduce their own outbursts, feelings of jealousy, or the feeling that they be less important.
Avoid Socially Isolating Your Neurotypical Child
This is a tough one. You know your child with autism can’t handle large crowds, excessive noise, flashing lights, and strange smells. And this has meant turning down lots of invitations… birthday parties… play dates… trips to the mall… sporting events… the movies… dances, and a lot of other things that your neurotypical child wants you to be a part of with them.
You feel caught between a rock and a hard place. What do you do? As often as is possible, leave your child with autism with a trusted caregiver and give your neurotypical child the social experiences they deserve to have. This time allows both of you to enjoy an event without pressure. It will also help with feelings of isolation. You’re building good family memories with your child as well. When you look back at this time, it won’t just be about raising a child with autism.
Pay Close Attention to Your Child’s Performance in School, and Get Involved
As a parent of a child with ASD, you will become intimately familiar with the educational system. You will learn about IEPs and 504 plans and many other special education services. While all this is going on, your other child is sailing through school on the mainstream track. Right? Maybe. But maybe not.
It’s so easy to let your neurotypical child slide on school work. It’s hard to keep up with their daily work let alone all the school demands of special education, special homework, and contracts for your child with autism. You just want one child to be independent and brilliant.
Just because your child is neurotypical, doesn’t mean they will fare well in the public education system. And all your children can benefit from setting up good homework strategies. This can include having a specific time to do homework. Checking in with teachers on progress. Allowing rewards for staying on task. Don’t just take your child’s word for it when they say everything is fine with school. Once they fall behind in their work it is much harder to catch up.
Give Your Neurotypical Child Every Opportunity to Foster Friendships
Friendships are vital to a healthy social life. You need friends. Your children need friends. What happens then when your college age kid brings home a friend after school and your teen with autism acts inappropriately?
Kelly Reynolds, 21, in a Time Magazine interview shared one such experience. “It’s hard to have a young child in an older kid’s body. [Will] may go up to one of my girlfriends and sit on her on the couch — which probably would have been cute when he was five years old but he’s 17 now,” Reynolds says. “That can be hard because you can tell when someone feels awkward or scared or thrown off.”
This kind of behavior can cause a neurotypical child to feel they can never bring a friend home. The embarrassment is just too much. For younger kids, it’s not just embarrassment, but potential backlash from outsiders who don’t understand autism. A casual school friend can quickly turn into a school bully spreading rumors about how weird you are because of your home situation.
What can you do? “Interestingly, a lot of these [typical sibs] are more outspoken,” says Levy of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “They’ll go up to people and say, ‘Yes, that’s my brother. He has special needs. Do you have any questions?'”
Total honesty and healthy dose of humor is often the best way to approach these kinds of situations. You’re likely to find this is the best way to handle a lot of situations that come up.