Having a child with an autism spectrum disorder has a transformative effect on the entire family. Typically, when a child is diagnosed with autism, parents embark on a mission to find effective treatments and support systems. However, during treatment planning neurotypical siblings are often overlooked. Given the high prevalence of social deficits, many autism interventions focus on social interactions. However, few of these interventions focus on teaching neurotypical siblings how to interact with their autistic siblings (Conway & Meyer, 2008; Tsao, Davenport, & Schmiege, 2012). Yes, there are interventions that involve siblings (e.g., Tsao & Odom, 2006; Walton & Ingersoll, 2012), but the siblings are primarily utilized as peer trainers. I am not advocating for neurotypical siblings to be treatment implementers; I am advocating for strengthening the relationship between the neurotypical and autistic siblings. Supporting the entire family – including the sibling relationship – is important to fostering positive, life-long connections (Conway & Meyer, 2008).
Many autism interventions are based on the medical model, which views autistics as lacking “appropriate” behaviors, and needing treatment. An alternative framework that has arisen in the autism field is neurodiversity. Neurodiversity views there are many acceptable ways of acting – rather than one “normal” way – and that autism is the result of naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths (Silberman, 2016). The autistic’s quirky behaviors are viewed as unique traits, leading to celebration – rather than elimination (Cascio, 2012).
What if instead of modifying the autistic’s behaviors, we work with siblings on modifying their interactions? Behavioral therapists routinely shape behaviors of autistics, why not the other way around? In this article I propose using the neurodiversity concept as a guide in reshaping the long-held focus of “modifying” the autistic to helping neurotypical sibling understand their autistic siblings’ experience and the motivations behind their behaviors.
Siblings and Autism
Some siblings may not fully understand autism. Seeking out education regarding challenges and abilities of autistics may help neurotypical siblings understand the motivation behind their sibling’s behaviors. For example, behaviors that others may label as atypical – be it hand flapping, echolalia, wearing headphones, hiding under blankets to reduce stimuli, or jumping up and down when excited – are ways autistics communicate their emotions. Teaching neurotypical siblings that autistics communicate differently and have different ways of coping, it promotes increased acceptance of a diverse array of behaviors.
From my experience, neurotypical siblings feel many of the same emotions that parents of autistic children experience. Research shows that for neurotypical siblings, social supports can be a protective factor against stress and anxiety (Tomeny, Rankin, Baker, Eldred, & Barry, 2019). Encouraging neurotypical siblings to connect with peers experiencing similar situations – such as support groups – may help them feel more comfortable expressing feelings they would otherwise not divulge. In addition, support groups may help reduce the siblings’ feelings of social isolation since many families with an autistic child avoid outings and social gatherings.
An effective way to strengthen relationships is through play. Although it may be challenging for siblings to connect with their autistic siblings, encourage them to interact through activities both siblings can enjoy. For example, is there a game that both siblings enjoy? Or can the neurotypical sibling introduce their favorite video game to their autistic sibling? Due to its sensory properties and encouragement of imaginary play, having siblings play with slime or playdough together is another great option.
Children with autism are rule governed; they take directions and turn them into routines. Predictability of routines helps autistics reduce their stress level since they know the order of events in their daily schedule. Teaching neurotypical siblings that routines are beneficial, not restrictive behavior patterns, help them recognize the benefits of consistency – and not that their brother or sister is being rigid and difficult. For example, if the autistic child is following the “only one person in the bathroom at a time when brushing teeth” rule (thereby decreasing sibling shenanigans), and their sibling enters the bathroom only to be met with “Get out! I am brushing teeth!” – we educate the neurotypical sibling about respecting their sibling’s following of the one-person rule; rather than asking the autistic sibling to be more flexible.
Autistics react more positively when given advanced notice before moving from one task to another. We can teach the neurotypical siblings how to provide effective transitions (e.g., I will play baseball with you for three more minutes and then I am stopping).
Autistic siblings teach family members to be precise in their responses. When an autistic child asks a sibling to play, and the sibling responds, “Ya, give me a few minutes,” to the autistic child that literally means a few minutes; not please go away and leave me alone. We need to emphasize with neurotypical siblings that what they say is what they mean, and their brother/sister is eagerly waiting the few minutes to play.
Lastly, many autistics experience sensory overloads – otherwise known as the dreaded meltdown. An effective way for neurotypical siblings to navigate through a sensory overload is being calm and patient. Rather than the neurotypical sibling walking off or becoming upset, encourage siblings to be calm and not take the outbursts personally; try to understand why their autistic sibling is reacting this way and showing compassion rather than annoyance. For example, three kids are playing a game that involves a basketball and a basketball hoop. However, the game is not basketball, it is a game of who can put the ball in the hoop without getting tagged. A rule of the game, no blocking the hoop like in basketball. The older siblings block the younger sibling – who is autistic – who becomes upset. The younger sibling quickly becomes irritated, cries, and yells, “I am not playing anymore!” Rather than viewing this interaction as the little one being a jerk, realize that for him he is playing by the rules and it is the older siblings who are being jerks. Rather than saying “he is acting like a jerk” or “we need to teach him how to play more cooperatively,” we teach the neurotypical siblings to consider why the autistic sibling is experiencing a meltdown, sympathizing with how that may feel for him.
While parents of autistic children may become frustrated, tired, and experience stress, it is important for parents to realize neurotypical siblings often experience similar emotions. Hence, parents acknowledging the emotional toll each member of the family undergoes is important to the growth and development of all siblings. In addition, since parents spend large amounts of time caring for their autistic child, many neurotypical siblings crave dedicated time with their parents. It is important for parents to dedicate quality one-on-one time each week with their neurotypical children; where they are the center of attention and feel special.
Having a child with autism changes the family dynamics. Yes, it can be challenging but viewing an autistic child through the neurodiversity lens allows the family to see life from a strengths-based perspective. Additionally, neurotypical siblings may gain a profound appreciation for their autistic siblings. When you get frustrated with an autistics’ behavior, remember their way of learning and thinking is different from your own. An autistic sibling interacts with and views the world from a different lens than their other siblings; that is a strength not a limitation.
For more information Heidi Hillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cascio, M. (2012). Neurodiversity: Autism pride among mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 80, 1, 273-283. doi:org/10.1352/1934-9556-50.3.273
Conway, S., & Meyer, D. (2008). Developing support for siblings of young people with disabilities. Support for Learning, 23, 3, 113–117. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9604.2008.00381.x
Silberman, S. (2015). NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. New York, NY: Penguin Random House, LLC.
Tomeny, T. S., Rankin, J. A., Baker, L. K., Eldred, S. W., & Barry, T. D. (2019). Discrepancy in perceived social support among typically developing siblings of youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 23, 3, 594-606.
Tsao, L. L., & Odom, S. L. (2006). Sibling-mediated social intervention for young children with autism. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 26, 106-123.
Tsao, L., Davenport, R., & Schmiege, C. (2012). Supporting siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders. Early Childhood Education Journal, 40, 1, 47–54. doi:10.1007/s1064 3-011-0488-3.
Walton, K. M., & Ingersoll, B. R. (2012). Evaluation of a sibling-mediated imitation intervention for young children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 14, 4, 241-253.