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The Unseen Heroes: The Impact of Autism on Siblings 

Parenthood is an incredible journey, and when you have an autistic child, that journey takes on unique challenges and rewards. But when you give a lot of your attention to your autistic child, it’s equally important to recognise the significant impact autism has on their siblings. In this post, we’re exploring the impact of autism on siblings, including looking at their experiences, challenges, and the essential role they play in the lives of their brothers and sisters on the autism spectrum. 

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a complex developmental condition that is typically life-long.  

Autistic people experience difficulties with communication, social interaction and restricted/repetitive interests and behaviours. These are often accompanied by sensory issues, such as oversensitivity or undersensitivity to sounds, smells or touch. All of these difficulties may lead to behavioural challenges in some individuals.  

Source: Autism Awareness Australia 

Autism is a spectrum that varies significantly in its presentation and severity from person to person. This variation often becomes a defining factor in the sibling dynamic. 

The Sibling Experience 

Like parents, siblings of children with autism find themselves on a journey. It doesn’t matter if they’re an older or younger sibling; they’ll experience love, compassion and shared moments with their autistic sibling. But they’ll also face other feelings, challenges and responsibilities that set them apart from their friends.  

Here are some of the key ways that having an autistic sibling can impact their lives: 

Increased Empathy and Understanding 

Siblings of children with autism tend to develop a deep sense of empathy and understanding. Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. When you see another person suffering, you’re able to put yourself in that person’s shoes and imagine yourself facing the same feelings and experiences that they’re going through.  

Younger and older siblings of autistic children learn to interpret their sibling’s nonverbal cues and unique ways of communicating. For younger siblings, it’s an important skill that will prove valuable for life. And in older siblings, this understanding will enable them to provide emotional support and assistance when needed.  

Greater Patience 

Remember that old saying, ‘patience is a virtue’? Well, it seems that this quality is less and less present today. People often want things done fast and are more likely to become frustrated when they’re not. Patience is another important quality that siblings of autistic children are more likely to develop.  

Autism can lead to repetitive behaviours and meltdowns, which require patience and understanding. Siblings often become adept at remaining calm and supportive in challenging situations. This is especially true for older siblings, who can be seen as role models for their younger autistic brother or sister and, in some circumstances, need to provide support to help their sibling better manage their sensory sensitivities and emotional meltdowns.  

According to BetterUp, being patient has many lifelong benefits, including improved relationships, the ability to deal with stressful and difficult moments in life, the ability to make rational and realistic decisions, and better focus on your goals and dreams. Patience is a quality that improves our personal lives and can significantly impact our working life’s success. 

Enhanced Advocacy Skills 

Many siblings become advocates for their autistic brother or sister. Over the years, older and younger siblings learn to navigate the educational and healthcare systems alongside their parents as they attend appointments and meetings, advocating to ensure their autistic loved one receives the best possible care and support.  

They can also take on the advocate role in school, employment and relationships. And they’ll likely help their autistic sibling with homework, support them in finding a job, or provide guidance to navigate social situations.  

As most siblings, whether older or younger, outlive their parents, having an advocate who has your back becomes more and more important to autistic people later in their lives. By being strong advocates, siblings can support their autistic brother or sister to access the support they need and to lead a fulfilling and more independent life.  

Unique Bond 

The sibling relationship in families with autistic children can be profoundly close. Siblings often share unique interests and activities with their autistic brother or sister, fostering a bond unlike any other. Older siblings often introduce their brother or sister to new interests that become a shared passion. 

Whether it’s a love of music, painting or bonding over online gaming and esports, these shared interests are a source of fun and connection for siblings.  

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the sibling relationship in families with autistic children is always easy.  

Challenges Faced by Siblings 

Growing up with an autistic sibling can be an enriching experience. But there are also challenges that should be acknowledged and openly discussed and addressed as a family.  

Limited Attention  

One of the biggest challenges faced by siblings is they tend to lack attention from their parents or carers. As a parent, it’s natural to zero in on the issues and hurdles your autistic child faces. But sometimes, you miss that your other children might also be going through tough times.  

Siblings of a young autistic person can feel resentment about the amount of time and energy their parents devote to their sibling, leaving them to feel as though they’re being neglected or that their sibling is being ‘favourited’. These feelings are likely to be experienced in their own unique way by both younger and older siblings. That’s why parents should try to find a balance by allocating time for each of their children. For example, set time aside each day to check in with each other individually and participate in something that they love doing.   

Social Isolation 

Siblings may experience feelings of isolation or embarrassment due to their autistic brother or sister’s challenging behaviours or communication difficulties. It’s also fair to say that children aren’t always kind, so hearing that ‘your sibling is a freak’ or being repeatedly asked ‘what’s wrong with your brother/sister’ can be tough for any young person to face.  

That’s why siblings of autistic children are more likely to experience challenges in their social lives. They may have increased feelings of loneliness and find themselves withdrawing from friendships and other activities.  

Greater Expectations and Guilt 

In families with autistic children, it’s common for everyone to chip in and offer support. But what often goes unnoticed is the extra load that older and even younger siblings bear when they have a brother or sister with autism. They might grapple with their own feelings, take on extra chores, or even put their favourite activities on hold. 

Sometimes, these siblings may find themselves grappling with moments of resentment or frustration toward their autistic sibling, and that can be tough to navigate. They might also feel extra pressure to excel in school and keep modelling good behaviour to make up for it. 

One situation that’s worth mentioning is when older siblings leave home. This transition is a big deal for any young adult, and it can be an emotional rollercoaster. For many older siblings, who often play a caregiving or protective role, leaving home can be both a relief and emotionally challenging. It can feel like they’re letting go of some responsibilities or even like they’re abandoning their autistic brother or sister. These emotions can be intensified because of the strong bond they share with their autistic sibling, often leading to feelings of guilt as they embark on their own journey. 

Supporting Siblings of Autistic Children 

Recognising the unique challenges that siblings of autistic children face is your first and most important step. Once you’ve got that down, you’ll discover many strategies and resources to make this journey easier as a family. 

So, here are our six top tips to help you on this journey: 

1. Open Communication: Encourage open and honest communication within your family. Siblings should always feel comfortable discussing their feelings, both positive and negative. Be conscious of making time each week just to spend time with them. 

2. Sibling Support Programs: Many organisations and websites, like Autism Awareness and Raising Children Network, offer online information and resources for parents who need support for siblings of autistic children. In addition, organisations like Siblings Australia offer programs and support for siblings of children and adults with a disability, including one-on-one support.  

3. Respite Care: Respite care services can offer siblings a break when needed, allowing them to engage in activities or simply have time for themselves. If you’re in the ACT, consider contacting services like The Ricky Stuart Foundation, which has two respite houses in Canberra to help autistic children and their families. One family left the following review, which we’re sure you’ll relate to: 

Emma Ruby House has been so valuable in providing our family with some time away from the caring role, enabling us to spend some quality time with our other child, whilst providing my daughter with quality disability care and life experiences. I have always been comfortable knowing that my daughter’s disability and medical needs are being well taken care of.” 

Rob S. 
Emma Ruby House Guest

 4. Quality Time: Allocate one-on-one quality time with each child, including siblings without autism. This helps ensure that all children, even adult children, feel valued and cherished. 

5. Education and Understanding: Help younger siblings understand autism by explaining it in an age-appropriate way. Our biggest tip here is to normalise it! Explain that we’re all different – physically and how our brain thinks. This can alleviate misconceptions and fears. You might find this resource helpful as a guide for these conversations: Talking to Children About Autism 

6. Seek Professional Help: If necessary, consider family counselling or therapy to address any emotional issues that may arise within the family. Don’t feel like you’re failing because you’re seeking help! We also recommend that you approach this proactively rather than reactively. It’s often more beneficial to receive support at the beginning of this journey rather than waiting until a point where issues arise that negatively impact your family and life.  

The impact of autism on siblings is complex 

While siblings with an autistic brother or sister may face challenges, they also experience immense personal growth, unique bonds, and life skills that benefit them throughout their lives. It’s common for siblings to be the ‘unseen heroes’ within the family as they often unknowingly contribute to their sibling’s well-being, care and development and fulfil a greater role within the household – all while facing their own challenges.  

To make this journey smoother for them, parents and caregivers should provide the support, understanding and resources to help siblings navigate their journey as well as they can. As a parent, by acknowledging the needs and experiences of siblings, you can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for your entire family, ensuring that every child, regardless of their abilities, feels loved and valued. 

Should you wish to discuss this article, or you’re interested in chatting with us about how Ignition Gamers can support your family, please contact us via hello@ignitiongamers.com.au or book a free chat.

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