We Are Family: Siblings of Special Needs Children
The latest statistics are staggering. 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism in the United States. This does not include all the millions of children diagnosed with intellectual disability, Down syndrome or another type of developmental delay.All of these children are part of families and communities, and many of these children have typically developing siblings. Although autism (or any other developmental delay) is an individual diagnosis, it affects the whole family.
The sibling relationship
The sibling relationship is the longest family relationship most of us will have. If you have a sibling, you know there have been great moments of closeness and frustrating moments of disagreement. Siblings of children with special needs have the same common sibling issues but also feelings and dynamics that are unique to them. Whether they are younger or older, they are often "parentified" as they tend to take on the role of parent or therapist to their sibling. Some siblings feel disconnected, as they may struggle to communicate or find common interests with their special needs brother or sister. Others struggle with resentment as their special needs sibling takes more of their parents' time and energy. These are just some of the feelings siblings may encounter in the home. While there are difficulties, having a sibling with special needs also benefits children in many ways. Siblings are more likely to be responsible and mature than other children their age. They are usually never the kid making fun or bullying others about differences. They are more likely to be compassionate and caring adults. This is something all parents want for their children.
Fostering positive sibling relationships
As parents or caregivers, what can we do to foster a positive relationship for these siblings? One of the most important things is balance. Balancing time with each of your children and not letting your special needs child monopolize all your time and energy for too long. Another thing to balance is time siblings spend together and apart. "Typical" siblings (I say that as who among us is completely typical?) need time to explore their own interest and friendships. At the same time, they need time to interact with their sibling. As parents, finding activities everyone can enjoy is key. No sibling group is alike. Some siblings love being outside, others love watching movies but almost all siblings can find at least one common interest though which they can connect.
While none of these special sibling challenges are easy, the results are extremely valuable. They will produce siblings that are better people and can have a strong relationship throughout the course of their lives.