There is a barrage of movies, articles, books, and blogs about the autism spectrum. However, there is relatively little information written about neurotypical siblings of individuals with Aspergers.
I’m writing this article specifically for parents of neurotypical brothers and sisters who have a sibling on the autism spectrum. Parents may be unaware of both the pros and cons of being an NT brother or sister. I’d like to help you understand some perspectives from NT stories and articles I’ve read, so that you provide the best balance possible to all of your kids.
Benefits of Having A Sibling With Autism
Diana Fialco wrote an article called Five Benefits of Growing Up With an Autistic Sibling. In it she outlines the upsides of having a sibling on the autism spectrum.
If you have ever spent a year or more in a foreign culture, you come back to your native country with a greater appreciation for other viewpoints. You find out that there are different ways of thinking, different values, different foods, all of which add to the wonderful diverse fabric that is our world.
In the same way, by learning to view the world through the lens of autism, siblings develop greater empathy and compassion for people with differences.
Here is a quote from the article:
The neuro-typical siblings go into adult life with open minds and the ability to see the world from many views. Not only does this shape an individual with compassion, empathy, and acceptance of differences, but it also inspires innovation and creativity.
Ms. Fialco states that she watched and grew to admire her brother’s courage and strength in facing misunderstanding, bullying, and struggles to understand a world not designed to accommodate an autism spectrum way of thinking and being. She learned what true challenges are from her brother, and draws strength to this day from his example.
Early on, neurotypical siblings may need to take on just a bit more responsibility within the family. Depending on where their autism spectrum sibling falls in terms of challenges, the NT sibling may need to help with caring for and modeling social skills to the other sibling. As a result, the NT child may become comfortable with motivating others, appreciating and tolerating different viewpoints within a group, and developing strength and compassion for those they lead.
It takes courage to advocate for a sibling who is different than other neurotypical kids. By advocating for her/his sister, an NT child will learn to speak up, assert his/her thoughts and feelings, and learn to face the world head on.
A neurotypical child who learns how to befriend and communicate with his/her Aspergers sibling will be enriched with a different outlook on life. In learning how to relate to their sibling with autism, brothers and sisters become open to innovation and creativity. Because many individuals on the autism spectrum are blessed with unique and creative ways of viewing the world, their siblings will benefit by being around them.
Challenges Of Having A Sibling With Autism
While there are many pro’s to having a sibling on the autism spectrum, I would be remiss to mention that there can also be challenges for neurotypical siblings.
Sometimes it’s just plain embarrassing when your brother or sister deviates from the ‘norm.’ Kids are kids: they want to fit in with the rest of their peers, and it can be hard to explain some of the difficulties that their Aspie siblings face, or the differences in behavior.
Lack of Attention
The treatments for the autism spectrum are many, and can take a lot of time, energy, and expense to implement. Screening and diagnosing Aspergers is just the first step for many parents. Once they have come to terms with the condition, they then need to mobilize all of their resources to best help their child with autism.
Unfortunately, many siblings of children with autism can feel left out as parents focus their time and energy on the brother/sister with autism.
Neurotypical siblings may feel that they are alone, or that they cannot speak to anyone about their unique positions as siblings of individuals with autism.
Having To Measure Up
One sister wrote what it was like to be the only sibling to an individual with autism:
it’s easy for one to feel that he/she has to make up for the autistic sibling’s deficits, especially when there is pressure from the parents. For example, since it’s 99% likely that my brother will never produce grandchildren for my parents, there is more pressure on me to, which I’ve been reminded of from time to time, especially as I’ve gotten older.
Discover These Parenting Tips and Resources
I felt a little overwhelmed just outlining both the benefits and challenges of being a neurotypical sibling to a child with autism. As a therapist and as a parent, I want both my clients and myself to be able to provide the best possible growing up experience to all my kids. How can we best support our neurotypical children within the context of our family?
Here are some answers three high school students have put together for us.
Over 1,300 surveys were distributed to 40 states across the nation. This research has become the largest and most wide scoping study of siblings of a child with “special needs” ever done.
Here are some parenting tips you can use base d the findings from that study.
In other words, teach your neurotypical child what autism and Asperger’s actually means! It’s challenging enough to share the diagnosis with your Asperger’s child. In the process, you (and I) may forget that our other children may also need to better understand the unique strengths and challenges of autism and Aspergers. The survey above found that children who better understood autism and Asperger’s had more empathy and compassion for their siblings.
Give Your Neurotypical Child Time and Attention
Be careful to pay attention to how much time and attention you are giving to your child with Aspergers. Then make sure that you are paying an equal amount of time and attention to your neurotypical child. Spend fun time with your neurotypical child, getting to know his/her personality, preferences, activities, interests, and dreams. As you build the relationship, you will be building your child’s emotional strength and self-worth.
Give Your Neurotypical Child Plenty of Extracurricular Choices
The survey I mentioned found that neurotypical children who felt the freedom to participate in the activities they were interested in had a healthier relationship with their Aspergers siblings. They appreciated their parents’ ‘permission’ to pursue their own activities.
Monitor Your Expectations of Your Neurotypical Child
This is a challenging area. As parents, we want all our children to reach their full potential. But we may also have our own subconscious agendas for our kids. Many children surveyed felt that they had to perform well in school and behave well at home. Perhaps this is a case in point that parents may expect ‘neurotypical’ kids to be able to perform well because they do not have the same challenges as their siblings with autism.
Offer Your Child Extra Support If Needed
Be sensitive to the potential challenges facing your neurotypical child as a sibling of a child with autism. Offer a listening ear. But also be willing to let your child talk to their own professional counselor if they need an impartial person to speak with. A professional counselor acquainted with families and autism can be very helpful to your neurotypical child.
Here Are Some Books You May Find Helpful
Everybody Is Different: A Book for Young People Who Have Brothers or Sisters With Autism, by Fiona Bleach.
Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families (Topics in Autism), by Sandra L. Harris
Siblings: The Autism Spectrum Through Our Eyes, by Jane Johnson
photo credit: standUPP