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Shining the Light on Spectrum Siblings

The protective big sister. The supportive little brother. The unconditional cheerleaders of kids on the spectrum. The children who often so willingly give up attention when their siblings need it. The kids who figure it out on their own because sometimes their parents are already overwhelmed. These are the siblings of kids on the Autism Spectrum. As a clinical psychologist who specializes in assessment and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders, I have had the honor of meeting so many amazing children with autism and their hero moms and dads. As I have gotten to know so many families, I have made special connections with the siblings of clients on the spectrum. The gifts they possess are incredibly unique. To the siblings of individuals on the spectrum, those diagnosed with autism are first and foremost a brother...a sister. Their reasons for being unique sometimes have little to do with symptoms of autism. Their siblings might be different because they like different toys, movies, games, colors, and foods. These siblings learn from an early age to accept and embrace what makes each individual special. This sense of unconditional acceptance can be the catalyst for emotional intelligence, empathy, and kindness. Siblings are learning that love comes in many forms and love has many languages. Spectrum siblings are often protective and supportive. They learn early on that family comes first and helping one’s sibling is of utmost importance. Even one of my five-year-old clients has been able to articulate that her younger brother sometimes “has a hard time doing stuff other kids do” and says “I try to help him all the time because he is my brother.” Generativity is commonplace. As remarkable as these qualities and traits are, these are not always developed easily. Siblings of children on the spectrum have their fair share of struggle and heartbreak. It’s difficult sometimes to explain to a young child why their sibling gets so much more one-on-one time than they might. The family trip to the zoo they were so excited about can get cancelled at the drop of a hat due to sensory issues or a tough morning for their sibling. Kids are frequently asked to be flexible and accommodating. Sometimes their own emotions might get the best of them and they need support. It is challenging enough to explain why life isn’t fair on any given day. Why did a classmate’s family get to go to Disney when we didn’t? Why does our neighbor have a pool and we don’t? Every parent has faced these questions and has thoughtfully discussed these topics with their children. Young children are not cognitively ready to understand abstract concepts that often arise when discussing neurodiversity. I often experience parents trying to explain that even though it does not seem fair today, each child always gets their turn eventually. Trying to explain why it isn’t fair can be even more challenging. Trying to console a child who often has to wait their turn and hear the same explanations repeatedly wears on a parent’s soul. Not to mention, parents constantly have to think on their feet.

Spectrum siblings often hear phrases such as “as soon as…,” “someday,” “when your brother…,” “if your sister…,” and so on. So many things are dependent on the sibling’s mood, functioning, abilities, and sensory receptivity on any given day. Kids often say they feel they are always waiting. Waiting for their sibling to be ready. Waiting for something to get cancelled if things are not going well. One young adult shared with me that she felt she had to grow up too fast and learn disappointment too soon. Parents often find themselves feeling the conflict of how to be fully present for both or all of their children. How do parents balance the needs of each child when every need has value? By shining the light on spectrum siblings, we can learn to value their incredible strengths and also honor the unique challenges they face. *Empathically focus on the positive qualities a sibling is building or displaying. “You’re being so patient and I appreciate it. I know it’s tough.” *Be specific with plans and requests. Since plans can often be subject to change or flexibility, discuss what things must happen for the plan to be successful and occur. Have backup plans. If the family cannot make that trip to the zoo, pre-arrange with Grandma for a solo sleepover with movies and popcorn. It’s not the same, but it’s something fun. Empathize with the child regarding any felt disappointment by saying “I’m bummed out too, so we will figure out when to try again.” *Talk about differences and help kids understand that we have different preferences, styles, hobbies, ways of dressing, favorite things (i.e., things they might visibly observe). Then discuss how often we have differences on the inside that we cannot always easily see. Help them understand that not everyone’s brain works the same and some brains like and dislike certain things that may be different from one another. As a result, each of us has things we are good at and things that are more challenging. *Help kids create strategies for what to do if they feel uncomfortable with how a sibling is acting or being treated. Make a plan for what to do if they feel embarrassed, worried or confused. Practice specific responses for when peers may ask why a sibling is different. Rehearsing ahead of time builds confidence and helps them feel capable of managing difficult feelings and situations. *Set aside one on one time with siblings. Tag team and take turns with spouses, family, and friends. Doing so is tough when time is at a premium. Sometimes it might simply mean taking the child along on a Target run or grocery trip and having that time together. Time is about quality, not quantity or price. A trip to the Dunkin’ drive-thru has become a special 10-minute treat for one of my clients. *Understand that the path to the strengths of spectrum siblings is not always easy. There can be tantrums, acting out, frustration, impulsive words. Reflect frustration and offer behavioral alternatives. *Offer therapy. A supportive and private environment is a healthy place to explore feelings.

Parent guilt is REAL. It’s one of the realest things I observe working with families. Parent guilt is often especially exacerbated in families with special needs kids. That time spent researching IEPs, finding the best OT, and creating sensory activities is well-spent. Yet so many parents then feel guilty because they did not give equivalent time to their other child(ren). Through empathic support, I endeavor to empower parents to see not the deficits their children face, but the opportunities they are given. We are constantly learning from our loved ones on the spectrum. What are we learning from the spectrum siblings? They are teaching us unconditional love. They are showing us patience. They are learning to appreciate and understand diversity and difference at a young age, which informs the rest of their lives. May they keep shining!


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