By Alexandra Back, M.A., ATR-BC, LPC
Director of Creative Arts Programs at NeurAbilities Healthcare

While it is necessary for us as a community and as service providers to address the needs of children with Autism, it is also important for us to acknowledge and respond to the quieter, sometimes forgotten needs of their siblings.

Many children may have questions or strong feelings about their Autistic sibling’s behaviors, needs, and diagnosis. They may feel like their sibling gets more attention from parents, caregivers, or family, and may feel confused about how to play with or engage their sibling. As they become older, they may feel embarrassed by their sibling’s unusual or inappropriate behaviors in public spaces, or wonder why their sibling does not have the same responsibilities at home as they do. They may also feel isolated or misunderstood among peers who do not have an Autistic sibling, or feel that their emerging identity as a young person is overshadowed by their role and responsibilities as a sibling.

All of these questions and concerns are valid, and it can be important for any child’s adjustment and development to provide space and time for exploring these issues. In recent years, many professionals and organizations have created an array of helpful books and resources to support families in addressing these varied needs of siblings. Professionals and families alike are increasingly recognizing the value and importance of support programs, including peer support groups, where children who have siblings with Autism or other diagnoses can connect with children experiencing similar dynamics.

Outside of more structured supportive programs, parents can assist their children in navigating their role as a sibling in the following ways:

  • Set aside time through the week to check in with your child, even 30 minutes on a weekend to play their preferred game or read a favorite story together can make a difference
  • Where possible, consider enlisting the help of partners and spouses, or extended family and friends to allow you to schedule specific alone time with the child
  • Help the child understand their sibling’s diagnosis and behaviors in an age-appropriate manner through the use of books, videos, and other materials
  • Support them in recognizing and celebrating the wonderful parts of their unique sibling relationship, including their sibling’s strengths and personality
  • Encourage activities that both siblings can enjoy in their own ways and skill level
  • Provide opportunities for developing autonomy and emerging individual identity through friendships, activities, and interests outside and separate from their role as a sibling
  • Be physically and emotionally available and judgment free for any difficult emotions and validate the sibling’s personal experiences
  • Model adaptive coping tools responses for moving through difficult situations or feelings
  • Express it! Make it clear that talking about and expressing their feelings appropriately and respectfully is always safe and welcome

NeurAbilities currently offers a 8-week virtual art program, ‘Art with a Heart’, specifically geared towards siblings of children with special needs, where they can connect with peers who understand and relate to their unique sibling experiences. The program incorporates elements of active art making, socializing, and discussion, while allowing the participant to have a safe, private space all their own to express themselves. Topics in prior cycles have included art-making for self-expression, understanding and normalizing behaviors, and celebrating the unique and positive parts of sibling relationships. For more information on this program and other services, PLEASE CLICK HERE or email us at info@neurabilities.com

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