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Education Matters: Autism affects the non-autistic sibling too

By By Rachel Martinez
May 25, 2013 at 12:25 a.m.


It is likely that you know someone with autism or a parent, brother or sister of a child with autism.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 88 American children have moderate to severe autism.

Autism, a developmental disorder that shows itself in early childhood, affects the brain's normal development.

Children with autism often display repetitive behavior and have difficulty communicating and forming relationships.

Autism doesn't just affect the child with autism. Siblings also face challenges as they navigate their own childhood with an autistic sibling.

Siblings may feel stress from extra responsibility when dealing with a sibling who has autism. Some children are confused by their sibling's behavior.

Frustration occurs when a sibling who has autism hits them, does something unwanted or breaks something belonging to them. Some experience anger, embarrassment and even jealousy of the attention the sibling receives.

Older children worry about how to explain autism to their friends. An adolescent may worry about caring for a sibling as their parents age.

Experts recommend several strategies to help siblings of children with autism cope with these feelings. It is important from early on to explain what autism is about.

A parent should talk to siblings often in a way that they can understand.

For very young children, a parent can talk about the behaviors their brother or sister might exhibit. For example, parents might say, "Your sister doesn't like change, and sometimes she cannot explain how she feels."

As siblings get older, age-appropriate vocabulary should be used.

There is never enough discussion when it comes to reassuring children about their sibling with autism. Talk to them often, then talk to them some more, then talk to them again.

Experts note that it's helpful for children to meet other kids who have siblings with autism through support groups. If there are none in your area, support groups for siblings can be found online.

Parents should consistently spend special time alone with the sibling. For example, time spent alone could include participating in hobbies together, going to the movies or even running household errands together. What you choose to do is not important; the important thing is that the child gets the focus of attention from his or her parent.

Finally, allow the sibling to be a child. It is normal for a child to assume some responsibility for their sibling who is autistic, but remind them that they are not the parent.

Reassure your child that the adults will take care of the sibling with autism, but that their help is sometimes needed and always appreciated. This allows a child to feel part of the family team while relieving any burden or stress they may be feeling.

If you would like to learn more, the information contained in this article was compiled from the following sources: autism.com, mifne-autism.com and the December 2007 Time magazine article "Autistic Kids: The Sibling Problem."

Rachel Martinez is an assistant professor of special education in the University of Houston-Victoria School of Education and Human Development. She holds a doctorate from Texas Tech University, and her research interest is in children and siblings with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

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