Milestones Autism Resources

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Siblings/Extended Family

Building Your Children's Sibling Relationship

Also see: Tips for Grandparents/Extended Family

Neurotypical siblings may need help adjusting to having a sibling with autism and may struggle with building a relationship with their autistic sibling. Parents can help their neurotypical children by spending quality time with them, supporting their needs and listening to their concerns when they are frustrated. Seek opportunities to strengthen your children’s relationship, such as planning activities for them to enjoy time together and building family traditions.

How can we make our typical children feel special?

Don’t always make your neurotypical child the caregiver of your autistic child. When you do request that they be the designated caregiver, model for them what they should do, and provide a schedule and specific tips to guide them with this responsibility.

In contrast, find a time when your neurotypical sibling can enjoy doing something age-appropriate instead of always assuming more mature responsibilities.

Find opportunities for you to spend one-on-one time with your neurotypical children. Be aware of how important that quality time is to your neurotypical children.

Help them explain to their friends about their autistic sibling. Give them words to say, but also validate their concerns, frustrations and embarrassment.

Provide a comfortable space where they can invite friends over.

Allow your child to have possessions that they don’t have to share with their autistic sibling  that will be kept in a safe place. Similarly, setup a space in your home—like the neurotypical sibling’s bedroom—that just belongs to him or her.

Show your neurotypical children that your autistic child has consequences for negative behavior. Explain that you understand their frustrations. If you can, also explain what behaviors you are currently working on with your autistic child.

Introduce your neurotypical child to other children with autistic siblings. Sibshops, for instance, are an effective way your neurotypical children can relate to and spend time with other siblings.

Allow your neurotypical child to engage in appropriate developmental activities, even if the autistic child cannot.

How can I help my autistic child bond with siblings?

Highlight the strengths your autistic child brings to the family.

Expose your autistic child to the hobbies and interests of your neurotypical children. Try to develop some common interests. For example, find a way for all of your children to enjoy a soccer game or bake cookies.

Work with your autistic child on behaviors that may annoy your neurotypical children. Explain to your neurotypical children that you understand how they may be frustrated when your autistic child engages in certain behaviors.

Include the neurotypical sibling when setting priorities for their autistic sibling to help develop harmony in the family and household.

Additional Resources

Find a Sibshop near you: Sibling Support

Sibling Support Project Website

For Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and Cousins

The special role you can play to support your autistic loved one and their parents can make all the difference in helping them thrive while building strong family bonds. 

Getting Started

In the beginning, it can be hard to understand or accept the diagnosis. There are many stereotypes about autism that can add to worries. Each autistic person and their strengths and challenges are unique but there are common issues. Milestones is here to help with resources, information and support.

Listen to the parents or caregiver for the diagnosis process they have gone through and the next steps they are taking.

Join related Facebook groups or other online discussion forums.

Understand that autism can’t be “cured” and that it is essential to use evidence-based strategies to help autistic people. Be wary of websites, blogs, special diets or other quick fixes that may be profit driven rather than credible.

Autism is not caused by vaccines. Children should receive vaccines as guided by the American Academy of Pediatrics schedule.

Understand that autism is a spectrum but common issues are repetitive behaviors, communication and social deficits, sensory processing challenges and transition difficulties.

How Your Support Can Make a Difference

  • Ask the parents, what’s the current thing you’re working on? What should I talk to your child about? Get to know and understand the child. Follow the parents’ lead regarding the child’s schedule, food items, games and behavior plan.
  • Keep your expectations for how they contribute to family events or plans in line with what they are coping with. For example, if everyone is bringing something over for dinner, maybe they can take care of an easier item. Give them extra leeway if they forget something during stressful times.
  • Learn more about sensory and other challenges your autistic relative experiences as well as the therapies being used. Ask how you can support the parents’ efforts.
  • Understand that meltdowns can happen and are difficult for parent or child to control. Be flexible if plans change as life with autism can make it hard to get out of the house.
  • Sometimes it can feel challenging to figure out how to relate to or engage with an autistic child or adult. Expressing interest in an activity or object of the child’s fascination can be an easy start. Ask questions or play a game they enjoy, understanding that they may not follow the social norms of play and interaction. For example, they may not make eye contact but that doesn’t mean they’re not listening to you.
  • Autism is a journey and issues change and evolve over time. Check in periodically to see how things are going and ask how you can be of support.
  • Offer to help take care of your autistic relative and give the parents some time to relax or take care of other tasks. Or volunteer to spend time with neurotypical sibling(s) so they get some quality time with you and do something they enjoy.
  • As you know, parenting is not always an easy job. Tell the parents how much you appreciate and admire the care they are giving to your autistic relative. Everyone needs positive reinforcement!

Making Your Home Welcoming

If you live in a different state, ask before they visit how you can prepare and what you can provide to help. Check on what the best sleeping arrangements and food options are for your autistic relative. For example, many autistic people have particular food choices and dislikes or may be sensitive to certain smells.

Make simple safety modifications after discussion with the parents, such as electrical outlet covers and nightlights.

Consider moving breakables or precious items out of sight and reach, especially with younger children.

Keep some toys and activities that are likely to interest your relative.

Holidays/Special Occasions

Discuss the occasion ahead of time with the parents for how to make the best experience for them, your autistic relative, and the other family and friends who will be attending.

Share the event’s schedule so you can prepare the autistic child for what to expect.

Discuss ways to engage the child with specific tasks at the event.

Holidays and special occasions like weddings give everyone an opportunity to spend time together but for autistic individuals, that can mean overwhelming sensory issues and meeting many different people who they may not usually see.

Understand the sensory issues your autistic relative experiences, involving sound, lights (visual), smell, touch/textures. Typical holiday/party issues include loud music, bright or blinking lights, foods outside of their usual diet and strange smells. It can be challenging for them to behave the way neurotypical people expect them to.

Provide a quiet place your relative can use if the sensory and people become overwhelming. Taking a break can be very helpful or planning ahead that they will come for a shorter time.

Think about ways your autistic family member can participate with the rest of the family in traditions, rituals or events.

For Parents: How Are You Engaging the Rest of the Family?

  • Explain the real issues, strengths and challenges you’re dealing with.
  • Share what you are working on this month so they can help you.
  • Give ideas for what your child can do at the next family time, such as taking coats when guests arrive.
  • Sometimes family members do not cooperate or seem to understand. The frustration and pain of these situations can be difficult to handle but diplomatically expressing what you’re trying to work on aimed at symptoms or issues rather than the diagnosis, if their wariness of autism is the issue, can reduce conflict. Focus on the family members who are engaged and understanding and ask for their help in group family situations.

Additional Resources

A Grandparents Guide is a free guide from Autism Speaks

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