The Role of Siblings to Autistic People

For families beginning the autism journey with a new autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, parents may ask, “What does this mean for my family?” Or, “What does this mean for my other children?” The critical thing to remember is that you are not alone. Many families wonder how their other children, older or younger, will process and understand what their brother or sister, who is on the autism spectrum, means.

Research has expanded from people in a family with an autism diagnosis to the effects on parents and siblings. Siblings often struggle to find where they fit in among the family and how they can help and love their brother or sister better. They may struggle internally with the idea that their family may look different and why sometimes mom and dad need to focus on one child. Leaving the big question to be, “What is my role as a sibling to a brother or sister with autism?”

For many kids, it begins with an understanding of autism. Siblings can be one of the greatest advocates for their loved ones. Like a parent needs to learn about autism to be a voice for their children, siblings can get too. Teaching a sibling why their brother or sister behaves a specific way can open the door to building the relationship. “Compared with other children and teenagers, children with an autistic brother or sister may be more mature and more adept at a form of empathy called perspective-taking, which means they can consider another person’s point of view” (Warren). If a sibling feels misheard or left out, it can strain a relationship buried in jealousy, misunderstanding, and negative feelings toward their brother or sister. When friends or peers ask questions, parents/caregivers must teach strategies to siblings. They should feel confident in answering and being a voice for their sibling.

Siblings carry a special place in the lives of individuals with autism. For example, a young woman named Michelle Byamugisha had an older brother with autism. During quarantine, he suffered from the schedule change and couldn’t do the things he enjoyed. Michelle noticed his attitude change and reached out to his favorite person, a weatherman her brother watched every night and loved. She asked for a video of encouragement for her brother. Less than an hour later, she received a video for her brother from his idol. It changed the course of his quarantine and his attitude. Michelle knew her brother enough to know what would help him overcome this season of change and confusion. Her small act of kindness built on her relationship with her brother helped him achieve some peace amid the chaos around him.

This relationship can also open doors for siblings to understand an autism diagnosis personally. A young girl named Lauren Singer has a sister named Jodie. Jodie has autism, and Lauren noticed the differences in her sister from a very young age. She was interested in the ways her sister differed from her. Lauren spent most of her high school career serving those with autism because of her relationship with her sister. She planned outings and volunteered in centers. Lauren saw the opportunity to see the differences in each child with autism and understand firsthand that individuals with autism are not all the same. Lauren went on to do gene research connected to autism and realized the scientists she worked with had never really spent time with people with autism. Learning from and spending time with her sister Jodie allowed her to share with scientists her personal experiences. She was able to be a voice for those with autism in the field of science (Katie Moisse).

Every sibling relationship is different. For children with a sibling with autism, parents need to nurture these relationships even more. As a parent, beginning to understand a small piece of what a child may be experiencing can strengthen a sibling relationship and make home life more straightforward. Parents should be open to the way a child feels about their brother or sister with autism. Parents have time to learn and understand their autistic child, and siblings deserve the same.

Home should be a safe place to ask questions and learn. When a family is on the same page, life moves smoother. “Explain to your children that autism is a lifelong disability that is part of a person from the time they are born. They may need reassurance that they did not cause a sibling’s autism and that ASD is not something they will “catch” or develop out of the blue” (Juneau). Children need to understand it is okay to feel frustrated and angry at times with their brother or sister, and parents must be there to use those moments to teach why their sibling acts the way they do. A child needs to feel supported rather than guilty for their emotions. In the long run, it develops a more profound relationship built on understanding rather than resentment.

A sibling of someone with autism needs to feel loved and supported. Too often, siblings think they are left out. Most of the time, siblings are around to care for and love someone longer than parents are. “Young children may wonder why therapists visit their home, offering toys, games, and special attention to their brother or sister. As siblings grow older, they may resent being left out of conversations about their brother’s or sister’s progress, or their plans for the future…” (Juneau). A sibling that is included in planning for the future and included in everyday life can benefit a child with autism. They are taught social skills and love from home, most of the time helping greatly in their progress. When a child feels left out, the pattern remains; they may resent their siblings or parents. For some children, a sibling support group can be a safe place to talk about the hard days and allow advice from those walking the same path.

A sibling to an autistic person, with the correct support and teaching, will typically grow to be their sibling’s number one supporter. A sibling will learn to communicate and teach their sibling with autism in ways others cannot. Studies across the globe show the sibling relationship to a person with autism and the tremendous positive effect it can bring to families. “A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology covers the other side of the sibling relationship; its effects on the person with autism. Researchers found that autistic children with typical older siblings have better social skills than those without siblings.

The researchers suggest that typical children may act as role models to their younger siblings with autism” (Wright). A person with a sibling with autism can educate and empower others from personal experience. They can also feel a sense of accomplishment for being a role model to those they love. If a parent has the opportunity to be an advocate, those playing and growing alongside their siblings should also earn that role!

Authored by Ashley Beck