Ask the Expert - Supporting Siblings in a Special Needs Family
Posted on 08/07/19 in Health by Beth Mishkind Roth
Siblings are often described as built-in best friends, confidants, and secret keepers; but they can also easily be labeled button pushers, enemies, and annoying. Bickering with your sibling is commonly thought of as practice for the real world, where you may or may not get along with the people around you.
What happens, however, when your built-in buddy has special needs? How do you respond when your sister is nonverbal or only talks about HVAC equipment, is aggressive without much warning, and screams in the living room when you have friends over? How do you handle the innate desire to push your brother’s buttons, when your brother doesn’t understand social cues and can’t “push” yours back? How do you practice for the real world, when you sister doesn’t respond as one would normally expect?
I have never been known to excel in math. That said, what I can easily equate, is that with 1 in 59 children carrying a diagnosis of ASD, many of whom have siblings, it equals a lot of kids having special needs brothers/sisters. These siblings will have the longest relationship with their brother/sister; longer than their parents, teachers, and caregivers. It is because of this, that we would be entirely remiss to not address the needs of these special siblings.
As a therapist, I am often asked by parents new to the diagnosis of an ASD, “how do I explain this to my other children?” While there is no simple “cookie-cutter” response, I do strongly encourage parents to meet their children where they are at developmentally. If your other children are young, an explanation such as “your brother’s brain works differently,” may be all that is needed to keeping them moving forward. For older children, that response may not suffice.
What I can say for certainty, is children (adolescents, teens, and sometimes adults) fill in the gaps in their understanding with what makes sense to them. While this is a great problem-solving strategy for certain things, when it comes to a diagnosis such as ASD, it is important that these gaps be filled in with factual, age-appropriate and concrete answers. This will help you to avoid thoughts such as: “I caused my sister’s ASD,” “I am going to get ASD,” and “my parents love my brother more because they spend all their time with him at therapy.”
So, how do you make sure that your other kids don’t feel this way? Talk to them. Set up special “one-on-one” time with your other children in a quiet setting. You can go on a walk or swing on the swings, but it should be separate from their sibling with ASD. Remind them that no question is too big or too little, and that they can be honest with what they are thinking. This is especially important to emphasize, as kids do not like to upset their parents, and may refrain from bringing up some of the harder, more heartwrenching questions, as a result.
You may find that they do not have very many questions at this time, and that is okay. You may also find that the flood gates open with an abundance of questions, and that too, is also okay. What is essential, is that you give an empathetic listening ear, and permit them the opportunity to voice their thoughts and feelings: good, bad, ugly, and in between. Common themes often include: embarrassment, a desire to better understand ASD, the importance of fairness, the sense of responsibility, a need for protection, and the love they have for their sibling.
If your children are biologically related (i.e. share the same parents), it is also vitally important to keep in mind that they share the same genetics. Once you have one child identified on the spectrum, you are at increased odds of having another child identified. Moreover, even if they do not have ASD, they are at a higher risk for developing other mental health conditions. Studies have shown these siblings have high rates of conditions, including autism, ADHD, anxiety and learning disabilities. Studies have also found higher rates of schizophrenia and mood disorders, among other mental health problems.
So, what does all of this mean for your family? Well, if you have a child with ASD, your resources (time, energy, and money) are often stretched as a result of caring for your child. It is easy to reason that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but do not fail to appreciate the squeaks, be they not as loud, of the other children in your home. For some, periodic check-in conversations suffice to meet their needs. For others, it is beneficial to enlist the guidance/support of a trained mental health professional.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Beth Mishkind Roth is a licensed clinical social worker/therapist, and owner of Cleveland Integrative Counseling, who specialize in evidenced-based treatments for children, adolescents, and families. Beth has a strong passion for working with the siblings of children with developmental disabilities, special healthcare needs, and significant mental illness. She also works closely with children/adolescents struggling with anxiety, depression, OCD, low self-esteem enhancement, and high-functioning ASD.