How can I help my child?

How parents can support the siblings of autistic children

Two little girl sisters argue over blocks

Being an autistic child can be hard, but what about their non-autistic brothers and sisters? There are quite a few issues they face as well, particularly when relating to their siblings and everything around their condition. Understanding autism is harder when you’re young, but there are many ways to help support them as a parent.

In this post, we look at the challenges faced by siblings of autistic kids. We also suggest ways in which they can be supported in relation to understanding autism, from talking about their concerns to communication aids.

The problems

To young children, explaining something as complex as autism or Asperger’s Syndrome can take a while. There’s so much to mention, including sensory issues and communication problems. On top of that, the concept of autism may seem new and frightening to many a non-autistic child, leaving them hesitant to talk to their autistic brother/sister.

As your non-autistic son or daughter gets older, they may have concerns about what happens to their autistic sibling in adulthood. Will they have to look after them? Do they have to assume some of your responsibilities as a parent when you’re a little older? Will their brother/sister be able to live and work independently?

If they’re at school together and your autistic child is, say being bullied, their sibling may fear being on the receiving end through association. On that topic, there’s a chance that if their brother/sister has a meltdown or certain traits that they find embarrassing, they may not want to be seen in public with them.

Something that can be hard to take for neurotypical/non-autistic children is that, if they have an autistic sibling with additional needs, they may feel ignored. This can be hard to take for younger children in particular, feeling as though they’ve been short-changed in some way.

Explaining autism

Should you have one son or daughter who has been newly-diagnosed as autistic, set aside some time to explain to your other child or children what it means. Try not to be too patronising, but at the same time, try to keep it simple and memorable. You could do it by following this pattern:

  • Ask them politely if they want a chat, but don’t invite your autistic child
  • Say that your child has been diagnosed as autistic
  • Explain what it means, covering three or four key areas e.g. talking to others, understanding things, sounds and sights, working in groups
  • Reassure them that your autistic child is just like them
  • Talk positively about autism
  • Persuade them not to treat their autistic sibling any differently and include them whenever possible

Try to be gentle when explaining autism and make sure when you do, you’re not too serious. The last thing you want to do is make it seem like being autistic is life-threatening; it’s a condition, not a disease.

Fitting in

To keep your autistic child happy, it may involve setting up routines to follow every day or every week. There’s a chance that your other children may not like it, but in order to ensure that no-one gets left out, it’s worth persuading them to follow the same routine, up to a point.

As a compromise, look at doing activities that all your kids like. It could be walking in a park, visiting a theme park or even watching a TV show they all enjoy. Ask them all to name a few things they love above anything else and if there’s something most or all of them have in common, do that.

Offering support

When it comes to supporting non-autistic siblings, there are a few types of support worth trying out. One is setting aside time just for them, as you would with your autistic child. This way, they’re less likely to feel envious of any extra attention their brother or sister seems to be getting. As for what to do with this time, it could be helping with homework or something fun.

If your non-autistic child or children show a little understanding towards their autistic sibling, let them know that they’ve done a good thing. Offer them praise, be it by giving them a compliment or even a small treat. That will encourage them to be more understanding throughout childhood, all the way until they turn 18.

A little reading

Should your non-autistic child not know what autism is and you find it hard to explain, it might be worth buying a book to explain the issues autistic kids face on a daily basis. One such book is called Can I tell you about Asperger Syndrome; it’s written from the perspective of an autistic child, telling their family what it’s like to be them.

Another way of offering support is going to a local support group for families like Bristol Autism Support. There, you can meet families with autistic and non-autistic kids and share each other’s experiences.

Including all your children in helping to set a routine for your autistic child can work wonders. That way, they’re able to gain a greater understanding of autism and feel part of something. They’ll also feel more confident about spending time with their autistic sibling in all kinds of situations.

See also: How to Support Siblings of Autistic Children

About the author

Luke Aylward

Luke Aylward

Luke is an Aspie copywriter and designer based in Leeds. He's the chairman of a local support group and enjoys providing accessible info around all things autism.