Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Brotherly Love

As a parent, I want my two sons to develop a loving relationship that will last through their adult lives. Unfortunately, Ethan’s autism disorder makes this challenging at times. Even though Ethan is three years older than James, his disorder makes it difficult for him to be a role model to James. Ethan struggles with reciprocal play, and often yells at James to leave him alone.
I needed some advice on how to make my sons’ relationship more positive, which is why I attended a talk by Dr. Megan P. Martins of JFK Partners/University of Colorado Denver on how to support siblings of individuals with autism. The talk focused on how having a sibling with autism impacts the relationship, and how parents can support siblings through adulthood.
The good news, according to Dr. Martins, is that studies have shown that siblings of individuals with autism end up fine, with no major psychological impact from the experience. In fact, many end up in careers that help those with disabilities, such as social work or psychology.
But children do experience a lot of negative emotions as a result of growing up with a sibling with autism. These emotions include anger, embarrassment, guilt, frustration, jealousy, loneliness, worry and loss. James is only 3 years old, but already I see him frustrated that Ethan doesn’t want to play with him as much as a “typical” sibling would. Plus, he gets confused and worried when Ethan has a meltdown.
One thing parents need to do to ease these stressors is to constantly explain what this complex neurological disorder is to the sibling. These conversations should be done in small doses on a consistent basis. Dr. Martins said the “autism” label wouldn’t mean anything to James until he’s 6 years old. In the mean time, I need to use concrete language to help situations make more sense to James. For example, when Ethan has a meltdown, it’s best for me to say, “Ethan is feeling sad right now, but it’s ok.” At this stage, letting James know he’s safe even when Ethan acts out of control is what’s most important.
As James gets older, Dr. Martins says getting James into a siblings group is a great way to provide support. The group would help James connect with peers who are going through a similar situation. In addition, it’s important to get James involved in our treatment of Ethan’s autism. For example, letting James attend Ethan’s social skills group is one way to expose him to Ethan’s deficits and show him strategies on how to deal with them.
Because parents of children with autism are often overwhelmed with trying to treat the disorder with numerous therapies, it’s crucial to spend special time with their typical child. Also, it’s important to find activities both children enjoy doing together, such as playing a board game or coloring, so that they have positive experiences to fall back on.
Relationships, even with siblings, don't come easy for people with autism. But with some extra effort on parents' part, a loving, supportive relationship can be realized.


LceeL said...

Our youngest is the one with Asbergers and he is 7 years younger than our middle son, so he has pretty much lived as an only child. So, unfortunately, I can't offer any help with the sibling stuff. Wish I could.

pixiemama said...

We try to strike a delicate balance around here. Reilly and Foster have always had a close relationship (something like twins, though they are not, and that relationship made us slightly unaware of how difficult other children can be for Foster - we thought he was just shy). Foster and Sophie, on the other hand, are not cut out to spend much time together. As Finn gets a little older and more independent, Foster is also becoming less tolerant of him. We try to make the kids give Foster his space when he needs it, and we try to find ways they can enjoy things together without Foster getting too wound up.

But you're right - the bottom line is that it is very hard for siblings at times. And it is very hard for us to not be able to "fix" it.

hokgardner said...

Good for you for being so proactive and aware of both your boys' individual needs.

Cookie said...

My heart goes out to you and your kids. What a tough thing to deal with.
I have 4 sisters. I'm only close with one. But I wouldn't trade that relationship for anything!

maggie said...

Good for you researching and doing what you can to encourage the relationship. I can't even begin to imagine all the unique variables that must exist, but I love that you are tackling it, and I'm also hopeful that it will have an impact on James in some really positive way. Sometimes tougher experiences as a kid when handled how it sounds like you are can make for more wiser and more compassionate people when they grow up. Sounds like you've got your hands full, and I admire you.

Shadow said...

hiya! thanks for your visit. what you describe here can not be easy. you sure know where to find the help you need though. no-one needs to go it alone, right!

Stimey said...

I think the fact that you're thinking about this at all speaks volumes about how your children are going to be okay. This is great information.

suzannah said...

you sound like you are doing a fantastic job meeting the needs of your boys, individually and as a family. blessings.

bernthis said...

Hey there: I've got one typical child and I struggle a lot. I hate that I don't deal well with a lot of stress. I'm getting better but I'm always wondering if it is too late. yes, she's 5 but they say these are the times when what you do/say will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Shalet said...

Let me tell you. I struggle daily to keep my three children from each other's throats (tonight included). And I really want them to have the close sibling relationship I never had with my sister. The problem is I don't know how to foster such a bond.

Your kids are lucky to have such a thoughtful and caring mother. Even with the hurdles I'll bet things will work out. Keep up the good work!