siblings at home

If you’re raising a child with autism, it’s vital to be aware of the effects it may have on siblings and your family dynamic. You will face many moments of strength as well as stress. Raising a child with ASD comes with extraordinary demands. Still, through the help of your ABA therapy team, counseling, and additional family resources, your family can meet the challenges to come and strengthen sibling bonds.

It is common to feel overwhelming pressure and emotions when juggling your commitments at work, home, and family. The lack of hours in your day may make it feel impossible to dedicate ample time to each child, but it is vital to do so, to maintain balance amongst siblings. But know that all parents raising a child with autism feel they often have little time for their other children and respond to their needs as well. Without a plan in place, the results could be lasting, affecting sibling relationships.  You may begin to notice signs of:

  • Tension between your children
  • Tantrums
  • Bickering
  • Isolation
  • Feelings of resentment

Two small children siblings jumping on the bed

Parental Guidance: Nurturing Sibling Bonds

Helping siblings cope effectively through their experiences with a sibling with autism can be manageable and successful with the right tools and practices in place. In fact, research indicates that the majority of siblings of children with autism cope quite well when their parents have put in the time, effort, and care to educate, work with, and encourage a strong sibling bond.

ABA Therapy for the Family

ABA therapy participation is essential for children with autism. ABA therapy strategies and best practices enhance your child’s ability to form new behaviors and long-lasting skills to thrive. Your child’s ABA therapy team will encourage parental participation, providing techniques and knowledge necessary for you to continue their ABA therapy strategies at home and across all their natural environments.

ABA therapy sessions are open to working with siblings and additional caregivers, so take advantage of these opportunities to help siblings feel their involvement is welcome and necessary. Through ABA therapy strategies, your entire family can meet goals while learning to form lasting bonds.

Ask questions often and seek advice from your child’s ABA therapy team regarding sibling bonds.

Working closely with the ABA therapy team can provide insight into:

  • How to talk to young children about autism
  • Guidance in fostering sibling relationships
  • Time management
  • Counseling resources
  • Art therapy and additional creative outlets

Family Counseling

Seeking counseling services is tremendously beneficial for supporting siblings of children with ASD. Siblings require emotional support and social guidance from adults to understand their role, place, and needs. While children with autism may experience stress, so do siblings, creating and enhancing the family unit’s challenges.

Children with autism thrive in environments with low stress and calm. Through ABA therapy and counseling, the family learns to work together to create this type of environment. It’s critical to understand the link between stress and anxiety in parents and siblings and your child’s ability to thrive. When family members experience strain, depression, irritability, or rivalry, they create a hostile environment, unable to help children with autism progress. You may see an increase in regression or acting out.

Combatting negative cycles can be manageable through family counseling. Counseling takes the family as a whole into consideration. Family counseling provides an opportunity to view each member as well as their roles in the family unit. Counseling services look for individuals’ unmet needs as well as their strengths in each relationship. Participating in family counseling offers support to parents and siblings, as they work towards achieving an optimal environment for the child with autism.

Often, family counseling begins with strategies to communicate effectively. Counseling provides a safe environment for each family member to talk within a safe space to express concerns, frustrations, wins, and ideas. Counseling provides parents with tools necessary to create a game plan to strengthen the relationships between siblings and their relationships with each of their children individually.

Utilizing family counseling services allow parents to seek guidance in strategies that benefit the entire family unit and strategies that meet each individual’s needs.

Counseling focuses on:

  • Creating supportive environments
  • Cohesion
  • Developing and maintaining individual roles
  • Addressing frustrations while creating solutions for a nurturing environment

Discussing Autism with Siblings

Family counseling and conversations with your child’s ABA therapy team can provide helpful insight into discussing autism with your children. Discussing autism with your children is best begun at an early age while revisiting the subject often. Keep conversations age-appropriate to ensure they can absorb the information. With younger siblings, help them understand various behaviors they are likely to notice with their sibling with autism. Help them understand safe behaviors and when it may be necessary to ask a parent for help. Explain limitations, such as their sibling’s struggles with communication. Help them understand speech and language barriers may hinder their receptive and expressive language , and what behaviors to expect if their sibling acts out in frustration or may not be able to request assistance.

Typical Sibling Concerns

Very young siblings will benefit from family counseling and ongoing discussions of autism. They must gain this understanding to ward off fear, anxiety, and confusion when behaviors arise that are not typical of their other siblings and peers. Repetition is critical with younger children, so revisit conversations about autism regularly and stay open to questions.

Older siblings experience more interpersonal concerns, including:

  • Embarrassment and explaining autism to friends
  • Their responsibilities in helping care for their sibling
  • Anger
  • Jealousy
  • Loneliness or isolation

Enlisting the help of your ABA therapy team and family counseling can support you in talks with your children at various ages and stages. They will provide individual counseling support for each siblings’ needs to work through these feelings.

Common Sibling Struggles

It is common to witness sibling struggles due to the nature of autism. Creating sibling bonds can be difficult for young siblings due to communication barriers. They may experience:

  • Feelings of failure while attempting to play
  • Misconceptions when their sibling seems to ignore their conversation or attempts to engage
  • Frustration with their lack of play skills
  • Sudden outbursts or tantrums which scare or confuse them

Help young siblings by involving them with ABA therapy practices that can make play and interactions enjoyable. Explain the use of ABA therapy strategies, including positive reinforcements, to include them in techniques to work on undesirable behaviors. Teaching them simple tasks and skills offers them a sense of responsibility in the family unit while helping them engage with their sibling successfully.

Research shows siblings learn basic ABA therapy strategies quickly and take pride in learning them. Simple ABA therapy skills may include:

  • Simple instructions
  • Encouraging sounds, words, or gestures
  • Practicing eye contact
  • Modeling and repetition
  • Offering positive reinforcements

Two child siblings hugging

Art Therapy for Siblings

While family counseling offers tremendous benefits, art therapy is an exceptional outlet for children with autism and their siblings. Art therapy allows therapeutic release for siblings who may not otherwise be able to express or handle the challenges of autism in the family.  The use of art therapy for siblings offers a way for them to work on self-exploration and expression. Siblings who tend to keep their feelings in can use art therapy to relax, create, find their inner voice, and excel in something of their own. Art therapy encourages the freedom to invent a voice and work through their feelings, whether they understand them or not. Art therapy offers a variety of outlets to express emotions, including dance, song, and writing. Expression through art therapy builds confidence and insight in a creative and therapeutically beneficial realm.

Art therapy helps children learn to visually express themselves by recording their experiences on paper, canvas, or other mediums. Siblings can use art therapy to share their feelings, perceptions, and fears without judgment. Art therapy offers a sensory-based, non-verbal outlet in a safe environment. By bonding with their therapist, siblings find a safe haven to explore and share freely.

Since art therapy is simply another form of non-verbal communication and self-expression, encouraging even the youngest of siblings to participate is beneficial. As with non-verbal children with speech and language difficulties, art therapy does not require strong verbal communication skills. Young siblings learn to articulate their feelings through drawings and paintings, while conveying struggles, wins, and varying emotions.

The use of art therapy also provides self-regulation for siblings who find themselves battling frustrations or are unable to find proper channels of expressing their jealousy, anger, or sadness.

In fact, neurobiology finds art therapy helpful to siblings, providing:

  • Elevations in mood
  • Increases in sensory integration
  • Improvements in the ability to self-soothe
  • Calming effects
  • Enhancements in critical thinking and problem-solving skills

Similar to play therapy, art therapy encourages storytelling. Storytelling through drawings or construction of art pieces is therapeutic as well as telling. During an art therapy session, therapists can understand emotions and experiences through the child’s work.

Establishing social skills through art therapy is possible through expressive art therapy projects. It teaches siblings to appreciate the differences between people and learn to accept another person’s perceptions.

The Data on Siblings’ Social and Emotional States

Although research on the social and emotional state of siblings of children with autism is not extensive, we still have valuable data across various factors, including:

  • Age
  • Birth order
  • Gender
  • Temperament
  • Personality
  • Parental involvement and modeling strategies
  • Informal and formal supports and resources available

Research by Debra Lobato, (Lobato, 1990) notes a significant factor in a sibling’s positive outlook, involvement, and bonding is due to their parents’:

  • Modeling
  • Acceptance
  • Ability to adjust
  • Reactions

Siblings report learning compassion, patience, and tolerance from their parents while having ample opportunities to help them work through difficult situations. Siblings also attribute their successful relationships with siblings with autism to:

  • Self-confidence
  • A better understanding of their sibling’s disability
  • Well-developed coping skills
  • Positive responses from parents and peers toward the sibling with autism (McHale et al., 1986)

Common Struggles Siblings May Face

It is essential to prepare for ongoing struggles and difficulties between your children. Some siblings may experience negative feelings towards a sibling with ASD. Siblings of children with autism may report difficulties with social situations, anxiety, and depression due to the nature of autism and its limitations to their sibling’s ability to bond.

Sources of Sibling Stress

Parents should be aware of a sibling’s feelings of:

  • Embarrassment around peers
  • Jealousy of a parent’s time parents with their sibling with autism
  • Frustration over being the target of aggressive behavior
  • Attempting to make up for their sibling’s deficits
  • Concerns over their parents’ stress
  • Concern over their responsibility for their sibling or roles in their future caregiving

School-aged siblings may experience difficulties with attention, language, learning, or mood, and will benefit from counseling and additional school support services. ADHD tends to be most prevalent. One study shows that forty-three percent of siblings may be at high risk for at least one area of clinical concern.  Apart from autism, symptoms of ADHD are the most prevalent, occurring in 13 percent of the high-risk children.

Top Parenting Tips for Helping Siblings

We want your family to succeed by helping your children form healthy bonds and a strong sense of self-esteem. Following these helpful parenting tips can help you achieve that:

  • Discuss autism often, keeping lines of communication open and honest, using developmentally appropriate and consistent information about their sibling.
  • Create a plan for family and individualized time. Spending one-on-one time with each child is imperative.
  • Praise and reward all your children for their achievements and efforts. It can be challenging to see a sibling receive positive reinforcements relating to their ABA therapy practices and not understand why.
  • Include siblings in ABA therapy sessions, strategies, and progress to heighten understanding.
  • Allow siblings to have choices in their involvement with care. Forcing responsibility or non-age-appropriate duties will only increase resentment.
  • Ensure a safe environment, including their private spaces and their belongings, as some children with autism can have destructive behaviors, including biting, hitting, breaking, etc. Help them learn redirection and response strategies in these events.
  • Offer siblings time to explore and work through their feelings.
  • Listen and acknowledge their feelings without judgment. Give them a voice and validation.
  • Share your own experiences and emotions, as appropriate.
  • Help siblings learn affective methods to cope and manage emotions – offer counseling and art therapy for optimal assistance.

While it may be a steep road, you are not alone. Our team at Blossom Children’s Center is here to support your family with resources, support, ABA therapy, and all-encompassing services to help your family unit thrive. Visit us today for information on all our therapies and services.

Nurturing Sibling Bonds Among Children with Autism and Siblings

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