Siblings of children with autism and AS

Do any of you feel like you are a piece of elastic, being pulled one way and then the other and in danger of snapping? I often do. Trying to divide your time, affection and money equally between each sibling is no easy task and try as you might, as parents, to keep things 'fair'. Some things in life just aren't!

If by some astounding phenomenon, parents manage to create balance and harmony and all family members consider that they are being treated fairly (if so then I truly believe in miracles!), one thing that is guaranteed to turn such harmony squarely on its head is the presence of a child with autism (or indeed any other special need). Whilst we all have to learn in life that some things just aren't fair, siblings of children with special needs learn this far more quickly than others. Ultimately I believe this to be a good thing and I truly believe that my girls are already much more understanding and accepting of difference, much more able to look beneath the surface rather than judging people, and much more able to tolerate and even see the funny side of others' 'unusual' antics. At these difficult times in their lives when they are living under the stress of exams and their hormones are on the rampage, I don't think the girls appreciate such a blessing just yet!

Each member of a family unit subconsciously teaches another many things. However, when a child has autism or indeed any other kind of disability, then that teaching tends to become more obvious. Siblings of children with autism may themselves need to be taught how best to 'play' with their autistic sibling, how to speak appropriately to their autistic sibling and how best to help him or her to learn. Although I applaud each one of my children for trying to fit in with each other, for accepting each other for who and what they are, and for being an integral part ofa beautiful whole, it is important that the part the girls play in living alongside and helping their brothers is fully recognized. Whilst Luke argues that 'different is cool', it is not always easy for any child to have a family that is different and therefore the girls may not always agree!

Whilst being tugged back and forth by each family member, these tips may help to create a more harmonious household and prevent you from eventually snapping in two!

• Share the workload with your partner (if you have one) and each spend some special time with your non autistic children. If you are a single parent, then utilize friends and family and any respite you are offered and make the most of your time with your typically developing children.

• Accept that your non autistic children are bound to feel resentment, embarrassment or even anger at their autistic or AS brother or sister. Allow them to express these feelings and make them aware that these feelings are only natural and they are not betraying their brother or sister for feeling that way.

• Whilst I teach my girls, in particular, to praise the boys for their achievements, one thing I need to remember myself is that they too need praise for doing so. It is too easy to take for granted the way the girls have to work with the boys, keep them safe, advise them, change nappies.. .the list is endless.

• However much you want to shout it from the rooftops, however much you want to announce to the world, however much you feel like skipping for joy, when your autistic child looks you in the eye and smiles or gives you a spontaneous hug or even speaks a new word.. .remember that your other children do these things already and don't get a standing ovation for doing so. It is important to ensure they are involved and praised in their own right too.

• Spend time with your typically developing children and teach them to look for their own 'rewards' from their autistic sibling. If they are made to feel included in the life of their brother or sister, then they too can feel proud of the work they are doing with their sibling. I have lost count of the number of excited screams I have heard off the other children as Ben learns new words or a new skill.

• Teach them to play with or teach their sibling in the way that you have decided to work with your autistic child. Explain clearly the reason behind your chosen method of teaching and let them know just how much they are helping.

• Listen to the complaints about your autistic child's behaviour without making excuses for them. Your non autistic children probably know only too well why their sibling does the things he or she does but that doesn't make it any less annoying or embarrassing. Siblings often feel guilty for thinking negative thoughts about their brother or sister so explain that it is OK to be bugged by their sibling.

• As mentioned before, try to ensure some private space for each child and find ways to make sure your autistic child cannot enter this space. All children need privacy and somewhere to call their own.

• Try to make sure that your autistic child does not disrupt his or her siblings' time spent with their friends. Although my children love Ben dearly, I know that he drives both Anna and Joe mad when they have friends here. As delighted as they are that he now is sociable enough to join them, they still don't want their friends to be whipped by a dirty nappy or to have a naked little boy drag them by their wrist and force them to play on the PlayStation!



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