Siblings and the Child With Special Needs

Comparing our children is a no-no, but we all do it. In passing conversations, we might say “Oh he’s my quiet one.” Or “He took all of the athletic genes and left her with none!” Siblings whine about the injustices of life, and keep a keen eye on which child gets what and when. If one child has a disability, however, and one child doesn’t, a unique set of questions arise. How much information should you share with the “typically developing” child? How do you talk to your child with the special need about their disability? As limitations become more apparent, what do you do about house rules when they simply can’t be equal? Below, both experts and experienced parents share what has worked for them when navigating with such delicate issues.

All experts agreed that open communication is a must for all siblings. Toby Glick, a school psychologist in Pelham, New York, presents workshops titled “Sibling Relationships in Special Needs Families” and consults with parents regarding this issue in Westchester, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey. Because most children sense that they are developing differently from their siblings, she suggests parents discuss the disability to the typically developing child early on. Explain why the brother or sister with a disability may need extra help or attention in certain areas. As the children get older, the parent can start to discuss the diagnosis and what the diagnosis means. By talking openly about it, Glick says feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and fear can and should be recognized and accepted.

Laura Shumaker agrees. She has discussed her oldest son’s autism with his younger brothers from a very early age. She kept things simple in the beginning, explaining that their older brother’s brain “worked differently and that it made it hard for him to learn and make friends.” By discussing what their older brother may need help with and why, she clears up any questions or misconceptions the children may have. She then teaches her younger sons how to assist their older brother.

Play up the strengths. Mary Calhoun Brown, award winning author of There Are No Words, has a son with Asberger’s Syndrome and Sensory Integration Dysfunction. She and her husband were always very up front with her son about his disability. Though she was concerned when play dates and invitations were not reciprocated, “our oldest son was so confident in who he is and the life he had settled into that he was very supportive (of younger siblings being invited to parties)…he has wrapped his self-esteem up in being an excellent student, and even attended Harvard Summer School this past summer as a 15 year old.”

Many parents advised finding one thing that each sibling has a passion for, and is competent at, whether it is theater, building, or sports. The goal is not perfection, it’s finding a natural love and talent so each child has something that gives them fulfillment.

Celebrate the differences. Considering the world we live in, teaching empathy and diversity in a real world setting will give your child a head start in a multi cultural world. Mother of an autistic son, Mary Gardner encourages her family to expect, welcome and appreciate the differences in people. “My son knows he’s different. But he knows that everyone is different.” Kirk Martin, Behavior Therapist and author of Celebrate! ADHD! whole heartedly agrees. As a Behavioral Consultant to school districts such as Fairfax County, VA, he has encouraged the 100,000 plus teachers he’s worked with “to proactively celebrate each child’s gifts and passions…rather than focusing on the disability.” When people are taught to focus on “what each child can contribute with his particular gifts”, Mr. Martin states that it keeps the focus on the positives.

Give siblings tools just in case they have to deal with teasing. Whether the disability is visible or not, there may be times when teasing may occur. Though this is unfortunate, it is also the reality, as teasing is not isolated to children with disabilities. Laura Shumaker believes in helping children cope if and when this takes place. Not only does she keeps lines of communication open so her boys can discuss it, but she also helps them with active phrases (“takes one to know one”)to help her sons use at the time the teasing occurs. She also encourages her nondisabled sons to educate others about her son’s disability.

Make time for each child, and don’t let the disability run the house. Ms. Glick has noticed that there may be times the needs of the typically developing child might go unnoticed because of the demands of the child with the disability. This can cause resentment and anger, and it just shouldn’t happen. Ms. Shumaker is careful not to let any of her boys get lost in the shuffle of autism. Whether it is making sure to attend sporting events or have a one on one dinner, all children in the family need to feel special and unique simply by being themselves.

All siblings will compare rules of the house, but there is no denying that if one of your children has a disability, unique situations will arise. Keeping communication lines open, focusing on skill sets, and modeling mutual respect will help the entire family.

Julia Garstecki

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