|Siblings of Autistic Children
Living with a brother or sister on the autism spectrum adds a unique bond and many extraordinary incidents
to the relationship. When a child in the family has autism, it affects the whole family. Though limited
research has been done, a child’s response to growing up with a sibling with autism is swayed by many
aspects such as age, temperament, personality, birth order, gender, parental approach and role modeling, and
resources available. Certainly, parents have little control over many of these factors.
Siblings have a special connection with each other which is usually life long. As a parent of a child with
autism, you can accurately motivate and support positive relationships for siblings. Parents may need to
cope with their own thoughts and feelings before they can effectively share information with siblings.
Some family structures include single parents, multi-generational households, and households with other
significant circumstances including more than one member with a disability. Each family has its own beliefs,
values, and needs. But regardless of family arrangement, all members of the family should be supportive
towards siblings coping with a brother or sister on the autism spectrum.
Understanding the Siblings Feelings
Communication and play can be difficult between siblings when one has autism. Often the sibling without
the autism is asked to presume, or may on their own feel obligated to assume, the role of caretaker. These
issues should be addressed by informing the sibling of the characteristics in autism, offering them assistance
and teaching them tactics for handling autistic behaviors. Research shows that siblings often do not
understand or have misconceptions about the definition and cause of their brother or sister’s disorder.
Additionally, it has been revealed that parents often misjudged siblings’ comprehension about their brother or
For younger siblings of autistic children, one of the first reality checks usually comes when their older
brother or sister won't play. The child on the autism spectrum may seem unresponsive or have a meltdown
when the sibling tries to interact. Children may show their anxiety through withdrawal or through
inappropriate behaviors. Siblings may be timid to ask questions due to not knowing what to ask or out of
fear of hurting the parent.
During childhood siblings understand autism in terms of separated behaviors that are specific, observable
and real (i.e., understanding is based on what the sibling sees rather than on reason). The sibling will notice
differences between self and brother or sister but expects a typical sibling interaction and relationship. The
sibling may be fearful of unpredictable behaviors (e.g., fearful for own safety, fear possessions will be taken
or destroyed). Depending on the sibling’s developmental stage or level of understanding, his or her concerns
are likely to focus on the cause of their brother or sister’s disorder, their brother or sister’s thoughts and
feelings, whether or not he or she will get better, what is expected of them as a sibling, treatment and
support, and what the future holds for everyone in the family.
Positive Outcomes Learned From Autistic Siblings
Typical siblings often express there are positive results from growing up with an autistic child such as
learning patience, tolerance and compassion, and having opportunities to handle difficult situations. These
opportunities also teach them confidence when facing other difficult challenges. Research found that siblings
without disabilities viewed their relationship with their brother or sister with autism as positive when:
• They had an understanding of the sibling’s disability.
• They had well developed coping abilities.
• They experienced positive responses from parents and peers toward the sibling with autism.
Parents should support the sibling to find ways in which they can relate or share an interest with the autistic
child. That can be something very simple such as singing a favorite song or playing a tickling game. The
siblings can bond with one another and show affection by playing and laughing together.
Parents must help prepare siblings for possible reactions from others toward their brother or sister with
autism. Make sure the sibling has facts about autism spectrum disorders. Remarkably, a lot of these typical
siblings grow up to become more outspoken about special needs. They don’t mind answering questions
about some of the weird and bizarre behaviors. Remember parents are important models of behavior. Help
siblings learn ways to deal with and manage their emotions.
The "typically developing" siblings of autistic children are, in fact, the furthest thing from typical. Often,
they are wiser and more mature than their actual age.
Some siblings have negative experiences when their brother or sister has autism. Anxiety, anger, jealousy,
embarrassment, loss, and loneliness are all emotions that children will likely experience. Because of the
nature of autism features there are obstacles to the sibling relationship that can cause additional tension.
Siblings will generally have negative feelings some might never relate or want to connect with their autistic
siblings but the good news is that typical siblings often turn out to be more compassionate and thoughtful
than average. These siblings have seen what it's like to have difficult moments in life.
Some autistic children are aggressive, which can be scary and dangerous, especially for younger children.
Parents are not able to watch over their children every second of everyday. Some of the behaviors may be
pulling the sibling’s hair, biting, striking, chocking, and other inappropriate violent actions.
It's common for siblings to feel humiliated by their autistic brother or sister's behavior in public, or to be
hesitant to invite friends home. That can be tough because the sibling may feel uncomfortable about the
autistic behaviors. Adding to these feelings is the fact that children with autism have no abnormal facial
Typical children face numerous challenges: parental responsibility; a feeling of isolation from the rest of their
family; confusion, fear, anger and embarrassment about their autistic sibling. Families and each member can
be both strengthened and strained from these circumstances. Parents need to acknowledge and
communicate only to their healthy children that they realize what they are going through and that negative
feelings are normal.
Additional Influential Situations
• Type and severity of the child’s disorder
• Number of children in the family
• Age differences between siblings
• Family’s child-rearing practices
• Family’s lifestyle
• Other stressful conditions existing in the family
• Parental/family coping styles
Supporting Typical Children with Autistic Siblings
Parents should set aside time alone with their typical children every week. Alone time with the sibling can be
done in different ways such as shopping or watching a movie together. The important thing is to schedule
definite “alone” time with a parent which the sibling can depend on. Make sure to explain treatments
available and future probabilities that affect the child with autism.
As they mature, siblings can better understand and accept the alterations and allowances made for the
brother or sister with autism. Be careful not to underestimate the potential of the child with autism. Make
each child’s responsibilities and allowances consistent and dependent on capability.
Many families make a major effort to praise and reward the child with autism for each step of progress.
This same effort should be considered for the siblings. Self-esteem is connected to positive acknowledgment
from parents. Remember to celebrate everyone’s success as special.
Parents can make the responsibilities appropriate to the age of the siblings. Parents should inform to the
typical child that while it’s great to care about their brother or sister, they are still children as well. That kind
of message confirms the parent’s love and eases the burden of caretaker.
Siblings are likely to spend more time with the child in their family who has autism than any one else, other
than the mother or primary caregiver. In addition, because the sibling relationship is the longest lasting
relationship in the family, sibling issues are lifelong concerns and change during their lifetime.