Autism in the Family: Helping Siblings Cope

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • For parents of a child with autism, balancing home, work and your relationship with your spouse is difficult. Add in siblings and it can be nearly impossible to meet each person’s needs and keep your household peaceful. Barbara Cain on, calls the siblings of autistic children the “invisible victims.” Through interviews she found many siblings have a mix of feelings; on one hand they resent the differences and the amount of time their parents devote to the child with autism; on the other hand they have an immense devotion to their brother or sister, going out of the way to offer protection.

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    Finding Time for Everyone

    Parents are often torn. They know and want to spend time with all of their children, but too often, the child with autism needs your time – and when that happens if is frequently an immediate need. You feel guilty but aren’t sure what to do, after all, your child has special needs. Too often, though, your other children are given the time and energy you have left – after you have taken care of the needs of your child with autism.

    • Siblings might react by acting out. When their brother or sister has a melt-down, you pay attention. And so, believing that acting up is the way to get attention, he starts causing problems, having temper tantrums, hitting, yelling or instigating quarrels and fights.
    • Or they may react in the opposite way. You may rely on your other children to see to their own needs more than you normally would. You may ask an older child to care for a younger child. And to live up to your expectations, children without autism sometimes take on a level of maturity well beyond their years. They try to live up to your expectations by being perfect.

    Each of your children needs your time and attention.  The following are some ideas to help:


    • Try to spend at least 15 minutes per day to have family time. You might sit down together after school and give all your children time to tell you about their day. Be prepared with questions, such as “Can you tell me one thing you learned?” or “What was your favorite part of the day?” Or you might want to use dinner as a time to talk about something good that happened that day. Be sure to set rules that each person has a chance to talk, uninterrupted, and that no one person can monopolize the conversation.
    • Incorporate private time for each child on a regular basis Find time to read together, go for a walk, go out for ice-cream or some activity that helps you connect individually with each child, at least once a week. . It helps if you and your spouse work together to make sure everyone feels special – you can take turns spending time with one child while the other is responsible for your other children – then the next time switch so both you of have the opportunity to connect with all your children. If your spouse isn’t supportive or you are raising your children alone, ask friends, relatives and neighbors for help by watching your other children for short periods of time.

    Creating Family Activities


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    Just as your time may be monopolized with the needs of one child, your leisure activities may too. You might plan vacations or weekends around special interests. Instead, make sure each child has a chance to express their wants and create plans so each child gets time to explore their interests.

    Other ideas include:

    • Make chores family time. Use the time you spend to clean the house or work in the yard as a way to bond as a family. Divide up the chores, according to each child’s ability, and work together. At the end, as you accomplish a task, you will all feel you contributed.
    • Provide toys and activities that will allow your children to play together and interact with one another. Encourage and praise your children when they spend time with one another. Start slow and be patient as they both learn how to relate to one another.

    Remember, all children need to experience normal family life. Take advantage of respite care or community resources to help give your other children a chance to spend time when the focus of the outing isn’t around their sibling.




    “Autism’s Invisible Victims: The Siblings,” 2012, Nov 30, Barbara Cain, Time Magazine


    “Sibling Perspectives: Guidelines for Parents,” Date Unknown, Marci Wheeler, M.S.W., Autism Society

Published On: February 07, 2013