Therapy room at Lighthouse Autism Center with toys on a table with blue chairs and book shelves above

Do Siblings of Autistic Children Suffer Increased Stress?

Growing up with an autistic sibling presents unique challenges. By addressing sibling stress, providing support, promoting communication, and practicing self-care, we can support the well-being of allistic siblings and the entire family. 

Do Siblings of Autistic Children Suffer Increased Stress? 

Growing up with an autistic sibling has its own unique challenges for brothers and sisters. According to a research paper on siblings of autistic children (The Quality of Life among Siblings of Autistic Individuals: A Scoping Review), “non-autistic siblings of autistic individuals experienced decreased psychological well-being, less perceived social support, increased aggressiveness and conflict-proneness, and higher levels of anxiety and stress impacting their quality of life.” 

By understanding and addressing sibling stress, providing support, fostering open communication, and promoting self-care, we can create an environment that supports the well-being of all family members.  

Together, we can ensure that children not only cope but also thrive in their relationships with their autistic siblings, fostering a stronger and more inclusive family bond. Let’s delve into the main challenges faced by allistic (non-autistic) siblings and explore some tips on how to help them cope with their autistic brothers and sisters. 

Main challenges of having an autistic sibling 

It is difficult to single out generic issues that affect families with an autistic child or children. It is especially complex when trying to understand the effects of autism on siblings, given that all families are different and all children are different within those families.  

For example, a younger sibling has always lived with autism in the family but may struggle to establish their own identity within the family dynamic while an older sibling may resent the loss of attention to the autistic sibling who came later. Combined with the personalities and temperaments of each child, and even the nature of the autistic sibling, dynamics can vary considerably. However, it is important to be aware of the issues that can arise from the specific dynamic between allistic children and their autistic siblings.   

Here are some common issues that have been highlighted on how autism affects siblings. 

Family dynamics

How a family responds to having an autistic child has a significant impact on allistic siblings. In some cases, when parents or guardians of an autistic child blame each other for the challenges it brings, it can lead to a separation or divorce.  

One guardian may end up with custody of both children and feel overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated. When the demands of autism become too much, this guardian might walk away or react with anger. As a result, the allistic child grows up in a chaotic environment, learning that challenges can strain family dynamics. 

At a more practical level, the daily routines and dynamics of the family can be significantly impacted by the needs and demands of an autistic child. Siblings may have to adapt to changes in schedules, limited family outings, or altered family dynamics, which can create stress and a sense of imbalance. 

Embarrassment 

Embarrassment is a tough challenge for siblings of autistic people. Children can be judgmental and may make hurtful comments about their autistic siblings. In response, they need to develop skills to support their autistic sibling and confront ableist bias as they grow older.  

Emotional impact

Having an autistic sibling means the whole family has to make adjustments. Allistic siblings may experience a range of emotions, including confusion, frustration, embarrassment, or even guilt. They may feel a sense of responsibility or worry for their sibling’s well-being, especially in social situations or when witnessing their struggles. It’s really important to take care of the mental health of the children who aren’t autistic so they don’t develop feelings of resentment towards their autistic sibling.  

Often, they have to give in and make compromises. They may have to watch the same movie over and over again, leave a fun event earlier than they’d like, or even say “no” to throwing a big party, just to make sure their autistic sibling is comfortable. And as they get older, these siblings might realize that their parents have less time and money to help out with things like college, weddings, or buying a home. 

Great expectations

Autistic siblings often require additional attention, support, and resources. This can lead to siblings feeling overlooked or neglected, as parental focus may be primarily directed toward meeting the needs of the autistic child.  

Even at a young age, siblings of autistic children are often expected to navigate their own emotions, take on additional household responsibilities, and put their own desires on hold. Independence at an early age is not uncommon, and comes with benefits, but also has it’s pitfalls. 

As they grow up, these siblings may find themselves shouldering even more responsibility for their autistic sibling, especially when it becomes challenging for their parents or guardians to manage everything. It’s a journey that requires understanding, compassion, and a willingness to lend a helping hand within the family unit. 

Communication and relationship differences

Siblings may find it challenging to establish typical sibling relationships due to differences in communication styles, social interactions, and play patterns. They may struggle to connect with their autistic sibling on a deeper level or face difficulties in engaging in shared activities. Conversely, siblings may develop more of a parent/child relationship with their autistic sibling, which brings a different dynamic and feeling of increased responsibility at a young age.   

Financial pressures

Money can play a significant role in the lives of families raising an autistic child. While it’s possible to navigate autism with limited financial resources, it can be incredibly challenging. Accessing resources, researching therapies, and attending appointments become harder for parents with hourly jobs or without internet access. 

And when those limited financial resources are primarily allocated to services for an autistic child, there may be little left for the needs of other children. College funds might be redirected to autism therapy, and additional expenses like fitting schools or respite care may require sacrifices. This can lead to resentment from allistic siblings towards both their guardians and their autistic sibling. 

Overwhelmed parents or guardians may lack the energy to assist with homework, coaching, transportation, or other typical caregiving activities. They may be unaware of school issues, emotional challenges, or potentially risky behaviors. 

Tips on how to help children with autistic siblings cope 

While there is no one way to deal with the dynamics between siblings, there are a few tips on how to help your allistic child deal with their autistic siblings. 

Education and communication

Providing children with age-appropriate information about autism can help them understand their brother or sister better. Open and honest communication within the family can foster empathy, reduce confusion, and promote understanding.  

Children may have misconceptions, such as thinking autism is contagious or caused by their own behavior. Discussing how autism affects their siblings specifically, helps children see them as a whole person with strengths and challenges.  

The first step on how to help siblings understand autism is to start talking about autism when they begin to understand or notice differences. Adapt the conversation based on their age and understanding. Ask what they already know, use age-appropriate language, and be prepared to explain multiple times. Open communication fosters understanding and empathy among siblings, creating a supportive family environment. 

Individual attention

Setting aside dedicated time for each child is crucial. It communicates that their feelings and experiences are valued and boosts their confidence and sense of belonging within the family. 

When allistic children have a positive self-perception, it can enhance their relationship with their autistic siblings.  

Create special moments by dedicating regular time each day to activities like bedtime stories or sharing positive moments. Additionally, listen attentively to your children’s thoughts and make time for enjoyable outings. Consider arranging trusted caregivers to look after the autistic child, allowing you to spend more quality time with their allistic siblings. 

Foster positive interactions

Siblings of autistic children often have positive feelings towards their brothers or sisters, but their relationships may not always be as close due to challenges in social communication.  

Encourage siblings to engage in activities that promote bonding and positive interactions. Finding common interests or creating structured activities that allow siblings to connect and have fun together can strengthen their relationship.  

For instance, engaging in shared interests like playing with trains or participating in basketball can create opportunities for inclusive play and enjoyable interactions among siblings. Finding common ground and promoting inclusive activities can strengthen sibling relationships and create lasting memories. 

Seek professional support

Consider involving therapists or counselors who specialize in supporting families with autistic children. They can provide guidance, strategies, and emotional support to both parents and siblings.  

There are also various organizations available to provide support for siblings of autistic children, such as Siblings of Autism, the Sibling Support Project, and Sibs Journey.  

These organizations offer valuable resources and assistance. Additionally, it is beneficial to explore local resources in your area to discover support groups, respite care services, and specialized programs specifically designed to support siblings.  

Mental well-being and self-care for siblings 

It is essential to prioritize the well-being of siblings. Encourage them to engage in self-care activities, such as hobbies, sports, or spending time with friends, to help alleviate stress and promote their overall mental and emotional well-being. 

It’s also important to be attentive to your allistic children’s feelings and validate them. When your child expresses frustration, acknowledge their emotions. Often siblings feel guilty  communicating their frustrations with their autistic siblings, especially to their parents, because they know you are also overwhelmed. Engage in open conversations with your children about their feelings in a non-judgmental manner.   

Collaborate with your children to find positive ways to channel their emotions, such as drawing or painting. By sharing your own feelings, you help your allistic children realize that their emotions are normal. 

Manage the children fairly

Ensuring fairness among your children is crucial, and establishing clear family rules can aid in achieving this. Strive to create family rules that are fair and consistent for all your children whenever possible and implement strategies that encourage positive behavior in all your children. 

Avoid accepting aggressive or hurtful behavior from your autistic child if you wouldn’t tolerate it from your other children. Encourage all of your children to contribute to family life; sharing responsibilities within the home fosters unity and imparts essential independence skills. Tailor tasks and chores to accommodate your children’s diverse ages and strengths. 

Grow together with Lighthouse Autism Center 

Among the many autism resources available at Lighthouse Autism Center is a large community of families who deal with the dynamics and challenges laid out in this blog. Join them in their pursuit of better sibling relationships through treatments like LAC’s innovative Lighthouse Fusion ABA Therapy to help their autistic children better navigate family life.  

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

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