Autistic Siblings: The Challenges and Positive Impacts
July 27, 2022
Today, I am awestruck as I watch two of my sons laugh, roughhouse, and play soccer in the backyard. For most families, joyful moments like these between siblings are frequent, everyday experiences. But for some families with autistic children, positive interactions between siblings can seem out of the norm or even rare. In our case, our eldest son Grant has autism and his relationship with his two brothers and sister over the years has been tenuous at best.
Having an autistic sibling can be hard, but there are also valuable lessons learned in these moments that may not have been learned any other way. Here are some of the challenges and positive impacts we’ve witnessed between our autistic son and his siblings.
1. The “It’s Not Fair” Syndrome
Over the years, our three younger children have shouted this phrase at my husband and me in frustration. “Why does Grant get to wear headphones and listen to music at the dinner table?” “Why does he not have to eat his vegetables today?” The list goes on and on. And to be completely honest, this is a hard one. Even though we’ve tried our best to ensure everyone in the family was held to the same standards and enjoyed the same privileges, the fact of the matter is that life is not fair. All of my children have different needs, and Grant, in particular, needs certain systems and routines in place to help with sensory overload. Sometimes that made the “fairness balance” (in my other children’s eyes) tip in Grant’s favor.
There were times where each of our children’s needs got prioritized too. And no matter how hard we tried, it never seemed fair to everyone. For example, my daughter got carsick easily. On long road trips, we always allowed her to sit in the front seat. It’s not because we loved her more. It’s simply because she had a specific need. Even though it wasn’t fair to the other children, her need trumped the fairness factor and she got to sit in the front seat every time.
To help our children deal with the inequalities in expectations they saw at home surrounding Grant, we frequently scheduled one-on-one time with each of them. We would do this to “check in” with them, learn how to better support them with their interests and talents, and help answer any questions they may be having about Grant and his behaviors and diagnosis. This seemed to help tremendously because it allowed us to spend quality time with our children and be on the same page on how to better handle challenging behavior in our home.
2. Siblings take the “brunt” of it
When Grant would get overwhelmed, he would often lash out at his siblings. His younger brother, in particular, seemed to be the one Grant would unleash the bulk of his anger and frustration on. It got so bad in our home that we nicknamed this practice “radaring.” Grant would “radar” on his younger brother the second he walked into the room and find some way to tease or bother him. This was particularly worrisome and challenging for our family.
We wanted to ensure everyone felt safe and protected in our home, so we spent countless hours in individual and family therapy to help address some of these issues. The therapist was able to validate any feelings my children were having about Grant’s unpredictable behavior and helped us find ways to deal with stressful situations at home. One of the best tools the therapist recommended was a free app — that they could use to help calm down after stressful situations — called Stop, Breathe, and Think. After setting up an account, your child answers a few questions about how he or she is feeling. For younger children, the app provides emojis to help them identify what emotions they are experiencing such as feeling frustrated, worried, angry, etc. After your child inputs their feelings, the app offers a few free breathing or meditation exercises to help them de-stress and feel calm. Talking to a therapist and using this app didn’t necessarily solve all of the problems we were seeing in our home, but it did provide us with better coping strategies and a more positive perspective.
1. Developing Kindness and Empathy
Since Grant has struggled socially, my other children have observed firsthand how hard it can be for autistic children to make and keep friends. Grant was the kid that ate lunch all by himself, never got invited to parties, and sat at home on weekends with nothing to do in high school. My younger children always felt badly for Grant and wished he had a friend that would reach out to him.
Because of this, our younger three children feel quite protective of classmates at school who are bullied or teased. They will often invite them to join them during lunch, play at recess, or come over on the weekend. They are sensitive to those around them who are lonely, and I am certain they’ve developed these qualities naturally because of their autistic brother.
2. Emotions and Mental Health are Everyday Conversations
In our home, we talk about our feelings and mental health regularly with each one of our children separately, including Grant. We talk about mental health at the dinner table, at night when we’re getting ready for bed, and even while we’re driving to our various after-school activities. Mental health and our emotions are not taboo topics in our home. In a world where mental health struggles carry a big stigma, I’m relieved that our children know that this is just as important as their physical health.
To encourage these dialogues in our home, we do regular “check ins” with our kids. This often includes asking them to rate (on a scale of 1 to 10) how they’re doing emotionally and how they perceive family life to be. We will ask questions like, “How would you rate your relationship with [insert family member’s name here],” or “How would you rate your happiness [or sadness] lately?” An important step is to just listen to their answers and not get defensive about how they perceive home life to be. Asking these types of questions helps us assess if our children need more support and discuss what changes need to be made to help them. Again, I’m not sure we would be as proactive with these conversations if we didn’t have autism in our home.
Grant is now attending a nearby college and is living in the dorms. Having some space between him and his siblings has been helpful. He doesn’t get as irritated with them since they are no longer under the same roof, and he actually misses his siblings and even requests to hang out with them occasionally. There are still some issues when he gets together with them for extended periods of time, but the situation improves a little more every day.
Even though raising an autistic child in a large family can feel like a roller coaster at times, we wouldn’t trade any of our experiences! Having an autistic child has helped us become more resilient and accepting of others. Grant has made us all less judgmental of those who are different, more in tune with our feelings and emotions, and infinitely more grateful for each other.
Melissa is the mother of four awesome children — one of whom has autism. Grant is now 18 and continues to teach his family that there is more than one right way to do things in life. Even though parenting a child on the Autism Spectrum can be a wild ride at times, Melissa is grateful for the life lessons she has learned and knows that Grant’s future is bright. Melissa has a Journalism and Marketing background and loves writing about her family’s experiences. Melissa has changed both her name and her son’s name to protect his privacy.