Siblings of Children with Autism
Effect on the Family
A family with an autistic child has to cope with additional pressures within the family, related to the specific characteristics of the disorder. The family is a dynamic social system, based on social and verbal interactions. Deficiency in emotional and social mutuality may also cause the lack of verbal or social feedback expected of the child, an additional factor intensifying the parents’ concern, tension and sense of pressure, which might influence the siblings as well.
One of the first families treated at Mifne in 1987 had two children, the younger of which—the identified patient (IP)—was three years old with his elder brother being seven. At the time, much attention was given to the IP and to his parents, but the elder brother was left somewhat in the background. One day the seven-year old whispered in Alonim’s ear: “I want to tell you a secret, but you mustn’t tell anyone. . .”. After she had promised to keep the secret, he continued:
“I also want to be autistic.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because then mummy and daddy will have time for me and I’ll also be allowed to do whatever I want…”
From the words of this child conveying a feeling of distress that is not always apparent, it became clear that there was an urgent need to include siblings in the treatment. This can be considered a universal pattern, as families with a special child naturally tend to invest their emotional, physical, logistic, and financial resources in him. As a result of the concentration of energy directed by parents in trying to rescue the one child from autism while assuming that their other children would develop naturally on their own (Carmi, 1997) because they do not have developmental difficulties, siblings very often find themselves in a state of perpetual conflict.
Drawing by a sibling: “The strong bond between my brother Ido and me came through love, patience, and work.and of course Mifne, who guided us to happiness and the big change in our lives.” (Translated from Hebrew)
Siblings of children with autism sometimes have a low self-image, as well as difficulty in coping with problems that arise. It appears that siblings perceive their special sibling as capable of changing his/her behavior, and are therefore less tolerant towards him/her. Siblings are often very sensitive to the amount of attention they receive from their parents, compared to that received by the special child. A state of tension between the parents is greater among parents of autistic children, and this may be a factor in the decline in their children’s self-esteem (Carmi, 1997). Carmi mentions several prominent types of siblings:
• Adaptive siblings, those that adapt to the situation and show understanding and behavior in a manner that is mature for their age.
• Introverted siblings, those that avoid social contact and don’t invite friends to their home.
• Ambitious siblings, those that excel in every way and try to “compensate” for their parents’ sake.
• Parenting siblings, those who demonstrate excessive responsibility and refrain from considering their own needs
• Siblings who develop behavioral disturbances, those who use every possible means to get more attention.
A Sibling’s Development
In many cases, the family quite naturally tends to invest their emotional, physical, logistical and financial resources in their “special child.” As a result of the concentration of their energies directed to help and save their special child, and in the assumption that other children in the family will develop on their own as they don’t have any development difficulties, brothers and sisters often find themselves in continuous conflict, jealousy, competition etc.
As a result of the experience gained at the Mifne Center, a therapy program has been developed for the siblings during the day, while participating in an intensive family therapy program. Some of the day is devoted to individual meetings (brother/sister – therapist) and some of the meetings are with the whole family, including work with the parents or with the “special” brother or sister.
The purpose of the siblings’ therapy program is derived from the specific needs of each brother or sister according to their age. In most cases, each of them goes through a meaningful process, like all the family. They are given the chance to examine their place in the family, to express their difficulties and conflicts which will contribute to their development.
At the Mifne Center, siblings are integrated in the family program according to their ages and personal needs. Very young siblings are treated by experienced therapist via play, while older ones, may get into verbal conversations as well. Very often it is possible to see new channels of communication created among siblings who receive an intensive support to empower their self confidence and their interrelationships.
Each summer, siblings between the ages of 7 to 14 of children who were treated at the Center are invited to attend the Mifne Summer Camp. This gives them the opportunity to return to the safe, warm and supportive environment experienced when the family was in residential treatment at the Center.
| Common issues that these children share provide mutual comfort and security as a support group.
| The children are able, with the help of familiar therapists, to discuss their experiences.
| Support they receive addresses their individual needs as children who grew up with a special sibling.