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Siblings of special needs

We truly become what we are teaching. Are you the parent of a child with autism? Are you the sibling of someone with autism? Do you help families with children on the spectrum? If so this blog is for you:

When you think of autism and your loved one what is your reaction?

Some may feel sorry for the individual, others may think its awesome, others fall more into the sometimes its ok and sometimes its not category. The focus should be that autism is a part of your brother or sister, it isn't who they are. They are unique just like you. You easily show your feelings in your actions and behaviors. Remember these feelings and actions are seen by others, most importantly your family members. Therefore if you are feeling sad, mad, hopeless, lost....then your other children may be learning these are appropriate feelings about the topic. Check in with yourself to make sure that you are representing what you want your family dynamic to be.

For younger children or siblings it is a great idea to include them in your special child's play. Show them how to play with their sibling by joining them in what they are motivated to do. Maybe it is lining up cars, or spinning with string to watch it sway. Maybe they enjoy laying on the floor and looking up at the fan. Everyone in the family can participate by having their own items to line up, or spin things, or even take a break and enjoy the fan. This is a great way to how much we love the things they love. It also allows for the younger siblings to feel like they are a part of the journey.

All caregivers feel as if they will never have enough time to dedicate to their children. With multiple children we often get discouraged on how to divide our time and make sure they are getting all their needs met. The same is true with special needs children and siblings. Reminder that it is quality not quantity that should take priority. If you are spending one on one time with your special needs child it is great to utilize other time frames to give to the siblings as well. This is a great break for you and them during your week. We see parents who utilize therapy time here at the clinic as a time to take sister or brother or others to breakfast, to get ice cream, quick trip to target, read a book together in the waiting room, or even watch a movie on the ipad in the car.

I find with older siblings it is important to make sure they are not feeling like another parent. When you need help, ask. Don't always assume that they need to be the caretaker for their sibling. Make sure they are getting time for themselves, their friends, their school, their activities and that you show interest in their things as well.

Griffin (my son) is lucky to have two older siblings who live with him and two younger siblings with his father's family. His older siblings are amazing with him. They truly treat him with respect and equally to each other. They love when he wants to engage with them or tell them stories, etc. Maranda (his oldest sibling) is like another mother with him on her own. He really looks up to her and loves her attention. Since he was young she has always been his "buddy" when we travel, choosing her over all the rest of us to ride rides with or sit beside on the airplane. Even now that he is a foot taller than her, she still takes his hand and leads him through crowds and keeps her eye out for where he is at all times. His older brother, Connor, encourages Griffin to hang with his friends when they visit. He includes him in conversations, games, swimming, etc. His friends have grown up with Griffin and other classmates (they are closer in age) and to them Griffin is just Griffin and they are happy when he wants to hang with them.

As an autism mom, I have talked a lot with my older bonus kids about Griffin and their feelings and thoughts on every subject. They have reassured me that part of the reason it all works so well is because as a family we don't treat Griffin or them differently unless it is necessary. They don't feel like they have to "give up" anything so that Griffin can have what he needs. If there is an event they want to go to but isn't good for Griffin, then as parents and grandparents we divide and conquer, that way everyone is good.

Running our Sonrise program for Griffin we got to witness how siblings want to be a part of the journey. Maranda and Connor both wanted to play with Griffin and be part of his team. While they may not have always been doing it as a "therapy approach", they were some of the be volunteers he had. Learning to be with Griffin, and later lots of kids through our clinic camps, both of my bonus kids developed a passion and love for helping others and for standing up for those who need it. All of his siblings know that Griffin's favorite thing is elephants and they enjoy building their relationship with him by loving what he loves and getting excited about elephants just like him.

The Autism Treatment Center of America gives some great ideas in their blog at for sibling discussions:

A sibling with Autism is unique and fun like no other child. We are blessed to have him/her in our lives.

Children with Autism are doing their best with the challenges they have! Being around people can be very hard for them.

Autistic behaviors are not weird behaviors; they are just ways in which our children take care of themselves when they feel challenged.

Having a sibling with Autism in our lives is a great opportunity for us to learn about compassion and the importance of helping others.

When we learn to help others, we become better at helping ourselves. We learn not to be defeated by life’s challenges but instead to persevere and grow from that experience. We learn not to take things in life for granted. This approach to life is hugely helpful for all of us.

There are some great resources out there for siblings and families. Here are some of my favorite:

A great view of raising siblings of autistic individuals

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