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Autism and Family Relationships

Having a child with autism affects the entire family. Here's how to anticipate 5 common family issues, cope with them, and thrive.

Autism and the Family: Issue 2 -- Worrying About the Siblings of Autistic Children

Whether the child with autism is the first-born, in the middle, or the baby, parents often worry about the effect that dealing with the autism -- and the time commitment it involves -- will have on the other children. "I think most parents bend over backward so it doesn't affect the other children," says McCarton.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers compared siblings of autistic children with siblings of non-disabled children and found those with the autistic sibling were actually better adjusted psychosocially and emotionally. They did find, however, that it's more difficult for the non-disabled child to cope with the autistic sibling if multiple risk factors such as low income are present.

Exactly why the siblings of autistic children scored better isn't known. Wright says they may have a higher level of maturity from observing and being involved in the care of a child with autism. "The message is," Wright tells WebMD, "lots of siblings are doing OK."

Still, it's a good idea to be sure the other children get one-on-one time with each parent, McCarton says. Many parents divide up the children. For example, the mother may take over a behavioral therapy session for the child with autism one day, and the father will take the other children out for a movie. Then they'll switch roles the next time.

In most instances, McCarton finds, the siblings really do love their autistic brother or sister. "They can sometimes get siblings to do things [that others cannot]," McCarton says. For instance, a sibling who has observed a therapist telling the child with autism, "Look at me when you talk," may pick up this request and ask on his own when the family is interacting, and the child will respond.

Of course, there can be some rough going. For instance, McCarton says there are times when the siblings don't like the child with autism. It can occur at life transitions involving other children, such as a first sleepover or a first date. The sibling may worry about what the friend will think of his brother or sister who has autism. Or the child may be afraid the other kids will make fun of the brother or sister with autism.

Parents should know that it is a "tremendous adjustment" for a sibling to realize a brother or a sister has autism, McCarton says. "It's important that siblings speak about how they feel."

Susan Senator, the Boston-based author of Making Peace with Autism, says that siblings may also form a very close bond with each other, helping one another cope with the fact that their brother or sister has autism. Senator's son Nat, now 18, has autism. Her sons Max, 16, and Ben, 10, have a close bond. "They seem to really support each other," she says, even though there is the six-year age difference. "The kids have to figure out how they are going to relate to their sibling with autism," Senator says, "and that changes over the years."

The siblings may have different reactions, as Senator knows. "My middle son is mellow and accepting. The little one said Nat ruined his life,'' she says. "I have to have hope it will change."

 

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