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How to Support Siblings of a Child on the Autism Spectrum

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It can be challenging to figure out how to support siblings of a child on the autism spectrum — if only for the time it takes you to manage your autistic child and his or her therapies, providers and related paperwork. But they are your children too.

1.Explain to others — then teach the vocabulary.

When our kids were young and Mr. D would rip off his clothes and streak through a playdate, we would explain to both the child — and the child’s parent — a Reader’s Digest version of autism. When other kids made of Mr. D in front of B, we would turn it into a lesson for everyone. And as time evolved, B adopted his own way of explaining his brother’s less typical behaviors, and lack of oral language, to his peers.  So now, I can have a house full of typical 14-year-olds who don’t bat an eye when an 11-year-old swipes a bottle of spray olive oil and starts misting the entire house like it’s a (greasy) room freshener.

2. Allow them to have typical moments.

Think about the mundane, the day-to-day. To pull this off may mean securing a babysitter, or tag-teaming, with your partner.  In elementary school, a big one was Open House: every student’s chance to show off their desk, their art, and their class to their parents.  We would often manage this by taking everyone to B’s school and setting up active Mr. D on the playground. Then we sold B on the “chance” to do his entire tour twice — once with each parent. We also left Mr. D (happily!) in his own classroom to allow us to attend music concerts, plays, and even his sixth grade promotion ceremony.

3. Accentuate the positive.

Despite the obvious challenges, there are some remarkable points of access that can be afforded to families of children with autism. You might be surprised which of the disability programs in your community allow siblings to participate as well. Over the years, B has accessed nearly-free ice skating, empty-except-for-us jump arenas, and special water activities — simply because he has a brother with autism.  He also benefits from us parking with Mr. D in closer, disabled parking spots, and from shorter lines on rides due to the various access passes available at amusement parks. Not to mention entire-car access to National Parks when his brother is with him. Do these “perks” make up for the rest of our complicated lives? No, but they help him get through the more difficult times.

4. Meet their needs and support their interests.

Work with teachers and coaches on how to support siblings in developing their own accomplishments and relationships. But I’m going to challenge you to take this a bit further.  First, consider the sensory needs of your typical kid(s). We were a bit slow on this as B’s sensory needs are nothing like his brother’s (who routinely eats whole lemons and rolls around in muddy puddles).  We were fortunate that his fifth grade classroom had the new wave of “flexible” furniture and at Open House (see above) the teacher indicated that B routinely used the “chair” that was actually an exercise ball.  Well, that was an easy add to his study area at home. As were some of the items from our Sensory Theraplay boxes that were not Mr. D-friendly — mostly fine-motor toys that were a potential choking risk.

And also think about the life skills of your typical kid(s).  If you haven’t read “How to Raise an Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, then put it at the top of your list — above your next autism book. For years, we thought we were “helping” B by limiting his “chores” and contributions to our household. Lythcott-Haims helps reframe this notion — essentially flipping it on its head.  If you don’t prepare your child to launch with non-academic skills, no GPA or test score is going to be enough to keep them from boomeranging back to your couch after (or, even worse, during) their college years.  So taking time to teach your typical kid to cook, do dishes, wash clothes and put gas in a car is an essential way of meeting their needs as well.

5. When in doubt, travel.

When thinking about about how to support siblings, you may not think of travel, but you should. Whether this is sibling travel — where parents tag-team with traveling with the sibling(s) while the other stays with the autistic child — or supported family travel — typical siblings deserve the opportunity to travel.  Travel helps build those life skills — carrying ID, managing money, and navigating transit systems — but also serves to create experiential memories that are beyond what can be created in the everyday routine.

6. How to support typical siblings? Just start.

Feeling like you have been hyper-focused on your autistic child and have been giving their sibling(s) short shrift? It’s not too late to start — no matter the age of your children, you can incorporate any of these ideas as you move forward.

This story originally appeared on The Piece of Mind Retreat.

Getty image by Sviatlana Lazarenka.

Originally published: December 14, 2020
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