Thinking about Siblings of a Special Needs Child

As seen in New York Special Child Magazine and on NY

Dear Sharon,

We have three children. One of our children, a 7 year old boy, is on the autism spectrum. Naturally, he gets a great deal of our attention. We’re concerned that our two older children (ages 9 and 10) are feeling neglected. They’re good kids and wouldn’t admit to it, but we want to make sure we are able to give our special child the attention he needs, but not at the expense of the other two. It’s difficult as I’m sure you can imagine. 

Do you have any advice for us? Any professional thoughts would be greatly appreciated. We are trying to be good parents to all of them.

Dear Parents,

Many parents with special needs children are rightfully concerned about their ability to juggle all of their children’s needs with so many responsibilities to handle.

Here are some suggestions that can help.

1. One of the most effective ways to increase parent child contact, improve communication and “even things out” is to schedule one on one time with each child. It is especially effective when parents can set up these “dates” on a regular basis; putting them in their calendars as “must do” events on a par with important work meetings. If “dates” are planned in advance it gives each child the opportunity to look forward to the day and think about what they might like to do. Letting the child choose the activity and staying away from adult distractions (cell phone, household talks, conversation with friends, etc.) can help balance the feeling of responsibility that often comes with being the sibling of a special needs child.

2. Finding ways to listen to children is an essential part of offering attention and support, this is especially true for 9 and 10 year olds who are nearing the complicated years of adolescence. Conversations might happen during the one on one time I mentioned above, after school, at bed time or during other quiet moments. It can be challenging for a child to say what is on their mind rather than to be protective or respectful of the time and support needed by a challenged brother or sister. If a child finds a way to share any of their experiences at home or school it is important for adults to listen without too much interruption or reassurance. When parents make a conscious effort to set up hang out/talk time that gives siblings a time to “open up” it really helps.

3. It is useful to also find times to be open and honest about the details of a special needs sibling’s circumstances; keeping in mind that it is important to tailor any explanations to the age and personality of the child listening.. Again it is invariably helpful to leave plenty of time to hear questions and to keep explanations concise. Many adults talk a lot, especially during difficult conversations. Children can easily become overwhelmed by too much adult perspective, but when they have a chance to talk, ideally for at least the same amount of time as mom or dad, it helps them understand and feel more at ease with the issues at hand.

4. It is important for any sibling to have the opportunity to explore interests and activities away from home that make them happy and build self esteem. Even though scheduling in a family with a special needs child can be particularly difficult finding appropriate activities can help children get as much praise and attention as a special needs sibling is invariably a good idea.

Dividing parental attention is difficult for any family with more than one child. When one child necessarily demands more resources it is particularly challenging but definitely possible. Any and all efforts you make to do so will have an invaluable impact on everyone in your family.