In this new blog, Senior Clinical Psychologist Rebecca Eaton offers families advice on how to support siblings of children on the autism spectrum.
For many people, their experience of being a sibling, or observation of other sibling relationships, is that of a warm, caring and connected experience. A relationship with an autistic sibling may include many challenges to be navigated together, or with the support of those around them. For instance, the ability to relate to, engage with and communicate can be challenging for some siblings as they learn to navigate differences in their development and interpersonal skills. One of the hallmarks of a sibling relationship is the lifelong affective bond that develops. In the instance of autism, this can provide a wonderful environment for a child’s psychosocial development.
The literature relating to the sibling experience is quite varied and diverse. For instance, some siblings can report feeling isolated, or a sense of sadness or confusion in relation to understanding their sibling with autism. For others, their feelings may relate more to the family unit and their experience of increased caregiver responsibilities or reduced amount of time spent with a parent because of their sibling’s needs for additional support.
While these feelings are recognised, there is also evidence to suggest that the sibling experience can also foster an increased sense of empathy and admiration for others and enhance their problem-solving skills and resilience. While a sibling’s experience can be moderated by the environment in which they live, the relationships around them, the supports they can access and how autism is navigated in their family, it is recognised that providing siblings with tools for understanding autism and their sibling relationship is imperative to their wellbeing and developing their sense of self.
Having a child with autism can welcome some wonderful moments between family members - the joy of a new skill experienced, the beauty in a developmental leap and the unconditional love and bond between family members. At CliniKids, we get to observe the role of siblings in therapy services, from supporting their sibling’s means of communicating, sharing in their happiness and excitement, and developing their abilities.
Some tips for supporting siblings in your family include:
Explaining autism and how their sibling’s brain is wired and may work differently can be helpful for siblings to make sense of some of the behaviours or challenges they observe from their brother or sister. One of the reported challenges for siblings is not having clarity on what autism is, what will happen to their sibling, and why they might behave in a certain way. Providing some clarification for your child may reduce their confusion, increase their understanding, and foster a closer connection with their sibling.
A sibling’s experience of loneliness and not feeling understood can stem from feeling different from others. Finding ways to increase their understanding of autism and other people’s perspectives may seek to normalise and validate their experience. For example, finding videos, books or comics that enhance their understanding will also empower them to accept differences in learning styles and share this with others.
Provide space for their feelings, they may be angry or frustrated if a toy or important art project has been ruined. They may be quieter than usual when a friend comes to visit or when they witness their sibling’s distress. Hold in mind their big feelings and that these may not always be their correct experience. For example, look beneath their surface feelings, be curious and wonder if it’s anger, frustration, embarrassment, hurt, or disappointment.
For older children, it may be more appropriate to design a family question box — it doesn’t need to be limited to just the sibling relationship, but also offers an opportunity for questions to be placed in the box and answered, with no further discussion. This can sometimes assist siblings to ask questions without the added worry or burden and will help you to know what your child is worried about or not clear on.
Carve out time to invest in an activity or task with them exclusively. This may be something simple like making a meal together, reading in bed, finding a few moments to sit with them and draw or paint. These moments can create connection and reduce isolation and loneliness.
Noticing and describing their amazing qualities. This can be written notes on a bed or under a pillow or spoken words. For example, you may find one minute a week to describe something you’ve observed or just purely want to share:
I’ve noticed how you always….
I can tell how much you care about…
I understand that sometimes…
I want you to know that I do see……
Sometimes siblings may find it hard to come to you as their parents because they may fear burdening or worrying you even more with their worries. Identifying their important people can be a way of supporting them to know they have lots of different support people who are open to listening and holding them in mind.
Reach out for your own support. Sometimes you might worry that your child needs some additional support but doesn’t want to talk about anything or it feels like it’s not the right time. Sometimes prioritising your own needs as a parent or caregiver can allow you to understand your own parent-child relationship and how to support and foster their wellbeing.
Have fun together. As your siblings grow, mature, develop and evolve, hold onto them, always remembering the strong part of the sibling bond.
CliniSibs - Group Sibling Program
At CliniKids we recognise the value and significant role siblings play in the lives of children with autism. From supporting therapy activities, championing their sibling on the sideline, creating moments that spark joy and happiness and loving their sibling unconditionally. The sibling relationship is something we aim to foster and support. This recognition led to the development of CliniSibs, a therapy group designed to assist and support siblings of a child with autism.
The aim of the program is to enhance the sibling’s resilience and psychosocial and emotional wellbeing through their shared sibling experience, enabling them to feel more adept at coping with difficult and challenging sibling situations. This will be achieved by providing a nurturing and supportive environment for siblings to express themselves in a safe and empathetic space, and enhance their sense of self through the development of emotional regulation strategies.
The program is run during the school term for a period of six weeks for primary school aged siblings aged 7-12.
If you are interested in learning more about the program, please visit this page.