You’re jealous of what?!?
My 4-year-old’s BFF, June, (who happens to be the daughter of my BFF) has a younger sister with autism. She recently started an ABA program with CARD and the family has therapists popping in and out of their house on a daily basis.
The initial weeks of therapy were a strain for her parents. Having a parade of strangers in the house is no picnic. Early on, my friend would stay up late cleaning every night. She once confessed that she always tried to be engaged in something when the therapists arrived or came downstairs, so she wouldn’t look like a “bad mom.” (I totally get it. It is the same reason I put on makeup before taking the kids to the doctor. The need to feel like you’ve got it all together is especially strong when you don’t.) After a few weeks, the family settled into the new routine and got to know their therapy team. My friend is no longer up at night scrubbing tile and sometimes she even answers the door in her sweats! (Good for her!)
Unfortunately, a new and more persistent problem has developed. Sweet little June now turns into a green-eyed monster every time a therapist arrives to work with her sister. From her 4-year-old perspective, her little sister has play-dates with super cool “big girls” with infinite energy and fun. During these play-dates, her sister plays with special “off limits” toys and has access to special treats, like bubbles and stickers and even snacks! Every few weeks, all the big girls get together with June’s parents and talk about her sister and plan more play-dates for her sister. …and don’t even start with parent training!
Understandably it is hard for June to watch her sister get so much attention and it is very very hard for June’s parents to watch her feeling sad and jealous when they already feel guilty about the time and attention given to June’s sister. When my friend brought up her concerns I encouraged her to speak to her ABA supervisor. Parent training (a key component of any ABA program) should address any sibling dynamics that might frustrate healthy family relationships.
There are many things parents and therapists can do to support siblings of children with autism. Here are a few strategies I’ve used with clients:
- Explain autism in an age-appropriate way to the sibling. They may not need to know the word “autism,” but siblings should understand that their brother or sister learns differently and needs a different type of teaching. There are many children’s books explaining autism in simple terms.
- Talk about how therapy affects the family and present an honest picture. It is okay to talk about the negative and positive aspects of therapy, as it can help validate your child’s feelings (e.g., “Even though I am glad Kyle is learning from his special teachers, it is hard to spend so much time at home. Some days I wish we didn’t have Kyle’s home school.”).
- Social stories can be a wonderful way to explain hard concepts in simple terms. They can also be used to create a set of expectations for a specific situation. Work with your child’s supervisor to create social stories to explain autism or relay expectations for the sibling during therapy sessions.
- Special outings, privileges, and one-on-one parent time help siblings feel valued and included. It is important that they have time in the spotlight and have an opportunity to connect with you.
- Family traditions and activities, like movie night or a weekly restaurant date, remind siblings and children with autism that they are part of a family. Activities that both siblings reliably enjoy are a good choice.
- Schedule play-dates for siblings during therapy sessions. This can be especially helpful if your child with autism is going to have a play-date during their session.
- Set aside a specific amount of time during each therapy session to focus on sibling(s). For example, the first 10 minutes of every session can be your special time together.
- Set clear expectations. It is unrealistic for you to spend every minute of your child’s therapy session focused on his or her sibling.
- At some point, children in every family have to learn the hard lesson that “fair is not equal.” Talk to your child about how he or she has different needs from your child with autism and how, as a parent, you work hard to meet the needs of all your children. It can be helpful to draw pictures when talking about complex concepts.
- Incorporate siblings into therapy sessions. If appropriate, set aside a little bit of each session as sibling time, or turn the last session of each day into a play-date with their sibling.
- If you can fit it into your busy schedule, arrange extracurricular activities for the sibling (e.g., dance, music, karate, etc.).
- Provide the sibling access to similar reward systems and prizes as their brother or sister gets during (and outside of) therapy sessions. Siblings can earn prizes for helping around the house, playing well independently, playing well with their brother or sister, etc.
- Have a baby sitter or family member come over once a week just to play with the sibling. Use this time for uninterrupted parent training (or reading a book!).
- Sibling training can help him or her learn to use the communication and play strategies your child with autism is learning in therapy. Sibling training can also be used for helping the sibling respond appropriately to aggression or outbursts by their brother or sister. Have the therapist meet once or a few times each week with the sibling to work on these skills and then practice with both children during and outside of therapy sessions.
These suggestions are not universally appropriate. Just as your child with autism is unique, so is his or her sibling. Sibling support should be individualized. Your ABA provider can and should work with you to develop sibling supports.
Sibling support groups are available in many areas of the country. Speak with your ABA supervisor or local funding coordinator to find out about sibling resources in your community. You can also visit siblingsupport.org to find out about their SibShops for siblings of people with health, developmental or mental health concerns.
Parenting a neurotypical child and a child with autism is a special challenge. Jealously is only one of the many challenges that siblings of children with autism face. The following are resources for parenting siblings of children with autism:
- Autism Society of America Handout: http://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/family-issues/sibling-perspectives.pdf
- Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families by Beth Glasberg and Sandra Harris
- My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete
- All About My Brother: An 8 Year Old Sister’s Introduction to her Brother who has Autism by Sarah Peralta
- Sibling Stories: Reflections on Life with a Brother or Sister on the Autism Spectrum by Lynne Stern Feiges and Mary Jane Weiss
- Views from Our Shoes: Growing Up with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs by Donald Meyer
- The Autism Acceptance Book by Ellen Sabin