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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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.
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Autism and the Family: Issue 1 -- Adjusting Parental Expectations continued...

"It's not what you thought your life would be like," says Kathleen Patrick. Patrick is vice president of services for Easter Seals New Jersey. Her son, Adam Martin, 11, has an autism spectrum disorder known as pervasive developmental disorder -- not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Her other son, Mark Martin, 9, is developing typically.

Patrick took solace from an essay titled "Welcome to Holland" written by Emily Perl Kingsley, a mother of a disabled child. Kingsley compares the experience of finding out a child is disabled to planning a vacation trip to Italy, then finding out you're actually going to Holland.

It's not horrible, just different, Kingsley writes. She suggests that if you spend your life mourning the lost trip to Italy you will never enjoy the special qualities of Holland. After you're there a bit, she says, you notice the charm --tulips, windmills, Rembrandts.

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.

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