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.
13 hours ago