Supporting Siblings of those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder
January 18, 2022
Rebecca Donnelly, MS, BCBA
When you are young, typically your goal is to not stand out. You always want to be as similar as possible to your peers and those around you, “Fitting in” is of top importance. When you have a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder, this goal becomes more difficult.
My younger brother was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at age 5. As time went on and we both matured, I started to feel the sting of “being different” more and more. My parents weren’t always able to attend my soccer games, I wasn’t allowed to have big sleepovers, and I was sometimes nervous about what my sibling might do or say in front of my friends. I sometimes had sadness and anger about why my family was different and why we couldn’t always do the things I wanted us to. My parents did a fantastic job recognizing and addressing these feelings in me as well as teaching me to be unafraid of what others think through their example. My parents were always accepting and proud of who my brother was and that helped me to be as accepting and unafraid as they were. My sibling even taught me that lesson himself. He was never worried about how others viewed him. He’d make jokes, be silly, and people LOVED him for it. He was popular and very well liked by everyone, just for who he was.
My parents also involved me in my brother’s life and progress by including me in his Applied Behavior Analysis therapy sessions where I learned more about why my brother did things differently and how I could help him achieve his goals. This also fostered my love behavior analysis and my future career. Ultimately, my parents spent that extra time with me and talked through feelings of embarrassment or misunderstanding, informed me about what autism spectrum disorder was, and involved me in my sibling’s life and progress. These actions made all the difference for me and allowed me to accept my brother, myself, and the beauty that lies in being different.
According to research conducted by McHale (1986), important factors for siblings viewing their relationship with a sibling with Autism Spectrum Disorder positively are to (1) minimize feelings of parental favoritism, (2) teach acceptance of the siblings role as a member of the family, (3) instill confidence in the sibling about their brother or sisters future, (4) help develop coping skills, (5) develop a strong understanding of the sibling’s disorder, and (5) engage in positive responses towards the child with ASD which will then encourage positive responses from the typically developing sibling. I see this research mirroring my own life and acceptance of my sibling with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. I believe the example the parents set for their other children, family, and community members is what makes the biggest difference in how we all accept each other’s differences.
McHale, S. M., Sloan, J., & Simeonsson, R. J. (1986). Sibling relationships or children with autistic, mentally retarded, and nonhandicapped brothers and sisters. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 16(4), 399-413.
Wheeler, M. (n.d.). Siblings perspectives: Some guidelines for parents. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/siblings-perspectives-some-guidelines-for-parents.html
Kaminsky, L., & Dewey, D. (2001). Siblings relationships of children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 31(4), 399-410.