I frequently get asked how we manage to provide a normal life to our typically developed children. Here are some of my favorite tips for raising siblings of autistic children.
I can totally understand the question. It is difficult to socialize nonverbal kids. They make funny noises, flap their arms around, and laugh at inappropriate times. This creates multiple awkward scenarios for siblings who may be at differing life stages.
It also takes an enormous amount of time to care for our autistic kids when you think about it: ABA, speech, enormous amounts of laundry, etc. It all adds up quickly. After all, we have the same 24 hours in a day that the rest of the world has, but our days are so full that sometimes I think we are going to explode.
A Few Items that all Children Need
So, what can we do to provide balance between the needs of our autistic kids and of our typically functioning kids? How do we equalize our energy expenditure so that no one gets left out? What do we do with extracurricular events, church, sports, school? Here are a few tips to get you started with raising siblings of autistic children.
All Children Need Love
- All children, typical or autistic, need love, attention, and affection, and guidance. When I come in to the house after a long day at work, I try to focus on greeting each child I see.
- I also tell them how happy I am to see them. I do discuss problems a little later on that need to be worked on; however I do not always go to the special needs kids first. I desire that each of my children know that I am happy to see them and hear about the adventures they may have experienced that day.
Siblings of Autistic Children Need a Little Space
- I do separate the children at times to help enhance the experience. One example of this is the church youth group. Our 15 year old son entered high school this year, an incredibly awkward time in the life of a boy trying to make his way. I have allowed him to attend the youth group at church without his older autistic brother in tow. It’s not that the autistic child doesn’t belong in youth group. Its more that the typical child needs a little space where he can spread his wings a little and not have to oversee the socially awkward behavior of his autistic brother. Our 15 year old gets a little room to develop his spiritual self and interact with his peers to develop healthy relationships with others. Our autistic teen did attend middle school youth group, but didn’t really care for the older teen group anyway. He does happily attend church with our family every Sunday without complaint.
Sports and Autism
- Sports. This one is tricky. Some of our typical kids are athletic. In fact, all of our typical kids are involved with a physical sport at one time or another. They may pick one sport at a time and navigate practice and game or meet times between the parents. Our autistic kids are not hauled to every event, especially when they can be unpredictable. We parents will take turns or we will have a babysitter for the autistic kids so that we can focus our attention on the typical child at their meet or game. It does create “special time” and helps our typical children feel that their talent is noticed and supported. Currently my daughter is in gymnastics. She has practice a couple of times per week and then some competition meets. It isn’t appropriate to take the twins to these events right now. However, it does give her time to have something that she can develop independently. It increases her self -esteem, gives her physical exercise, and helps build social interactions. Her brothers aren’t there, so she gets a well deserved break to do something on her own.
Siblings Need Time to do “Normal Kid” Activities.
- Friends/Sleepovers etc. This one can get awkward .For instance, it is difficult to negotiate normal child activities like a girls sleepover when you have special needs kids. We don’t put a total nix on this overall, but we do limit our guests to those who have spent time in our home and are comfortable with autism interaction. The friends who would be overwhelmed with this will usually host a get together at their house. We do have an open communication other parents of kids who might become a guest at our house. The reality is that many other children do not experience autism firsthand, and sometimes it’s best to introduce this in small doses.
Having a Special Needs Sibling is a Pretty Awesome Experience……Most of the Time
- In the end, its a really cool experience to have an autistic sibling. Because our typical children are growing up understanding how to show empathy, advocate, and develop a fondness for the special needs population,. they are learning to love unconditionally. I do receive many comments from teachers, youth leaders, neighbors of how helpful and kind my typical kids are to others, and how quick they are to notice when someone needs a helping hand or some encouragement. They learn that each milestone is hard earned. Each tiny step of progress is something to celebrate. They don’t mind that my twin’s favorite song right now is ” Happy Birthday to You” which can be randomly sung at all hours of the day. Usually our typical siblings will jump right in, grab a hug or squeeze, finish the song with whomever is humming it, and then carry on like it was all completely normal to sing that 6 times per day when it’s no one’s birthday.
Family Group Activities.
- We do have family activities that everyone can enjoy together. We go hiking, swimming, boating, and lots of other things as a family unit. It’s enjoyable and builds relationships. Family activities help take the stress off and builds healthy relationships within our own family unit.