Siblings of Children with Autism

Sandra Harris discusses ways to cope with the impacts of autism on your family, in this interview.

Interview by Allison Martin

What do studies show about the effect of autism on other siblings in the family?

There are really two aspects to this question. One concerns the extent to which the siblings of children with autism pose more problems needing professional attention than other children, and the other aspect is to what extent their sibling's autism influences what they think about and worry about. I think it is important to distinguish between them. In terms of the first question, in general research on the siblings of children with autism suggests that most of them are much like other children their age. There is however a small group of these children who are more vulnerable to worry and anxiety or to "acting out" behavior than is true for other children. So, while having a sibling with autism does not usually mean that a child needs professional attention, there is that subgroup of children for whom this is important. The child who is often worried, moody, sad, or angry for extended periods may benefit from help from a mental health professional.

I think parents sometimes confuse those clinical issues with the more common concerns that are part of growing up with a sibling with autism. In thinking about that it is important to put the experience in perspective. Each of us is shaped by the environment in which we grow up. For example, if we live in poverty, have a parent with a chronic illness, experience the death of a grandparent or our parents get a divorce, all of those things shape the person we become. The same is true for having a sibling with autism. That experience influences what we think about, how we view ourselves, and what our worries might be. These kinds of issues are different from the kinds of clinically significant problems I mentioned. All of us had worries and concerns when we grew up. Childhood, like the rest of life, is rarely free of stressors that are inherent in living. Those concerns focus on the things we see around us and how they impact on our lives. That is true for siblings of children with autism just as it is for every child. The good news is that caring parents can help children deal with these kinds of concerns, as they do for other issues that arise in a child's life. Having a sibling with autism poses problems that must be solved, but it does not mean that one's childhood will be without joy and delight.

What can parents do to help siblings understand autism?

I think the key thing in helping a child understand autism is to adjust what you say to your child's age and ability to understand. Very young children will not benefit from a discussion of the details of autism, but they do need to be reassured about concerns about a sibling's behavior. Older children can gradually come to understand how autism influences their sibling's life. Younger children will notice mostly the visible behaviors of their sibling such as tantrums or stereotypic behavior. Older children will understand that it is the impersonal challenges that are most daunting.

How can parents encourage more positive interaction between their children?

he best way to encourage interaction is to make sure both children have the skills to play together. I think it is a good idea from early childhood to find simple things your children can enjoy together. The child with autism should be taught some games he can play with his siblings. It may start with rolling a ball or playing catch and gradually become more elaborate as they grow older. Older children might jog or shoot baskets. If they have a tradition of spending even a small amount of time together the time can gradually be expanded. Older siblings in particular may enjoy learning some basic teaching skills so they can be "teachers" of play. David Celiberti and I did some research in which we taught older children to teach basic play to younger brothers with autism. The videotapes we made showed how much both children came to enjoy these play times. Beth Glasberg and I discuss that kind of interaction in the latest edition of the sibling book.

How can parents deal with resentment and competition from younger siblings?

A certain amount of jealousy and competition between siblings is almost universal. I think it is important for parents to remember that and not over-react to expressions of jealousy when they see it. On the other hand, it is important that every child have the experience of feeling perceived and valued by her parents. That means making sure to find some time that is private, special time with your typically developing child(ren). It might, for example, be the time that is spent driving with dad to the store on Saturday morning and a half hour with mom at bedtime each night. What you do is not as important as the fact that it is time that belongs to the child and he or she has your focused attention.

In closing I would like to add that what has impressed me most about families of children with autism is the resilience and strength they bring to that experience. I have known hundreds of families over the past 30+ years and one of the important lessons they have taught me is about learning to carry life's hard demands with grace and humor.

Sandra L. Harris, Ph.D., is a Professor at the Rutgers University and the Director of the Division of Research and Training at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center. She is the author of a number of books about autism. The most recent book is Essential First Steps for Parents of Children with Autism: Helping the Littlest Learners. Her book, Siblings of Children with Autism, explores the impact of raising a child with autism on brothers and sisters.