It can be a challenge dealing with sibling issues in the best of circumstances, but when one of your children has autism and the others are neurotypical, the challenges multiply. So how do you deal with it?
Here are five ways you can help your neurotypical children deal with the complexity and confusion that sometimes comes with sharing a childhood with a sibling on the autism spectrum.
You will need to explain to your neurotypical child that their sibling is not like them. While you may get a lot of advice from others, ultimately you decide how to describe your child’s condition to another child. It’s your choice. There isn’t a specific formula you have to follow.
Explaining Without Labels
You may define autism as a disorder and explain it on those terms. Or you may see it as just a different aspect of what some consider “normal.” This includes the use of labels.
Labels help us to categorize and order our lives. But labels can also hurt, stigmatize, or confuse. The word autism is a label. We use it in order to communicate certain information with a child’s doctor, teacher, or caregiver.
When we use that label with a sibling, depending on their age, it may not be helpful at all. A five-year old, for example, isn’t going to understand why their eight-year old brother screams and bangs his head by simply telling her that her brother has autism.
Labels also have a tendency to lead to a feeling of separation that can work against your efforts to foster a closer family unit where siblings are genuinely understanding and compassionate towards a brother or sister with ASD.
Try explaining the issue in terms that bring about a sense of compassion and familial duty to look after the sibling with ASD. This will give your neurotypical child the sense of belonging and inclusion that comes from having an important role as a protective brother or sister.
You will need to find other words to help gain understanding in the context of how your family sees autism as a condition. How you do that, and what you believe to be best for your family is always your choice.
Honesty is Best
It is important to talk to your child about how their sibling’s disorder will affect them. At every stage of their development, there will be new challenges to face, and there is no way around the fact that this will effect everyone in the family in one way or another. The older your child gets, the more aware they become of just how different they may be from their sibling (all of this depends on where your child is on the spectrum of course).
Honesty is the best policy according to one family faced with autism. “My parents would always tell us when they were frustrated or in a bad mood. This type of honesty was so important—it allowed my older brother and me to express our frustrations and gave us power over those feelings.” Being able to honestly share your own feelings opens the door for your child to do the same.
Honest communication also allows them the freedom to ask questions that may be considered inappropriate, rude, or inconsiderate in other circumstances. Your child needs answers as much as you do. They may have different questions or feelings, but they are legitimate. Acknowledging their emotions and questions can help them cope and understand.
Allow Books on the Topic of Autism Do Some of the Explaining for You
How you talk to your neurotypical child will greatly depend on their age. If you have a teenager and decide later in life to have a baby, who ends up with autism, your chat with your teen about their little sibling will be much different than with a four-year old.
Books on autism are some of the best tools for helping younger children understand why their brother or sister is different. Reading an age appropriate book and then discussing it with your child will give them a chance to ask questions and begin to conceptualize the issue of autism in the abstract, which is known to lead to a greater level of understanding and empathy in children. A child won’t always immediately empathize with a challenging sibling, but they are likely to feel empathy for their favorite character in a book, and this will translate to how they feel and act in the real world.
Join an Autism Support Group and Get Some First Hand Advice
Sometimes your child needs to hear it from someone else. Raising a child with autism will challenge even the most prepared parent. The same will be true for your neurotypical child. They are going to experience things that will make life different, and often difficult.
Support groups for families dealing with autism can be very helpful. Not only will it allow you and your other family members to share experiences and stories, you may also pick up tips from other parents who are a bit further down the road who can offer pearls of wisdom based on their own experiences.
Your neurotypical children will have a chance to hang out with other siblings of children with autism. Hearing from someone their own age about how they feel embarrassed or frustrated can help relieve feelings of guilt and anger in your child. It can also help your child feel less alone when they know there are other kids like them experiencing the same things.
Make sure the Discussion is Ongoing
Even though there may be that single point in time when you sit down with your nuerotypical children to explain autism, the conversation has just begun. As each day brings about unique occurrences between your child with autism and their siblings, talking about what is going on will help build understanding. If you always isolate your child with autism or shield your other children from whatever is taking place, this may cause feelings of separation and confusion about the cohesiveness of the family unit.
Talking with your neurotypical children about an autistic sibling is almost sure to be a challenge. Relying on some outside help is a good idea, whether that means finding a great book or documentary on the subject or reaching out for help from others. Just know that you are not alone, and there are resources out there to help make the process easier– for both you and your children.