Autism is currently affecting 1 in 150 children, but children who suffer from the effects of Autism are much higher. In a family with more than 1 child who have a child with Autism, the effects on the non-autistic sibling can be life long.
For a family whose Autistic sibling is the eldest, it creates an entirely different family structure with the younger non-autistic child either taking on a caregiver or guardianship role or emulating the behaviours of the child with Autism.
Children with Autism take up a lot of the parent’s time and energy often leaving little for the younger non-autistic sibling. Sometimes a non-autistic younger sibling feels that they have to compete for their parents attention and that the extra attention somehow means that the child with Autism is the more loved child. This can lead to resentment of their disabled sibling and sometimes negative behaviour. To these children, any attention is better than no attention – even if it is negative.
On the other side of the coin, a younger non-autistic sibling can sometimes copy their Autistic older brother or sisters mannerisms leading to a concern that this child may have Autism as well. Even in a normal household, this is what would happen. Younger children learn a lot from their older siblings and if the behaviour is not regarded as acceptable, how are they to know.
With early development, the non-autistic child is going to watch and copy what the older child is doing. They will learn their behaviours, the flapping, the stacking of blocks and sometimes, the guttural sounds that replace speech in approximately 50% of children with Autism. Care needs to be taken that the non-autistic sibling does get a chance to socialize with other children to encourage a healthy development. Even something as small as a playdate with a neighbours child or at a daycare with other non-autistic children of a similar age.
The beauty of children is, that unless they are taught to do so, they are going to treat their Autistic sibling like one of the family and accept their behaviours. They may not always like what they do, but, they will understand that the child with Autism is part of the family and will love them as such. They may take on a caregiver role, speaking for them, helping them with things etc and therefore the roles of older and younger sibling will be reversed.
Having children with Autism in the family can also sometimes lead to social isolation. It is difficult at best to take a child with Autism on some outings as sometimes their behaviours are not socially acceptable, e.g. the screaming and the flapping. Despite recent media attention about Autism, there remains quite a large number of the public who still are uneducated and look upon Autistic children as being naughty and undisciplined with bad parents.
For families with little or no outside help, it means less time going out as a family and also, unfortunately, less time that the non-autistic child gets to do things that other children their age are doing.
Educating the younger non-autistic sibling about Autism and how it is affecting their older sibling in an age appropriate manner is a good way of helping the younger child deal with some of the things they may not understand. Explaining to them that the older child is not always in control of what they do and that just because they behave in such a way, it does not make it right. Encourage the non-autistic sibling to discuss their feelings and encourage them to come up with ways that they can help out, thereby freeing up a bit more of their parents time for themselves.
Autism affects the entire family and it is only natural that the non-autistic sibling have some issues with role reversal and development but by communicating and being open, this can all be built on positively enabling the non-autistic child to build a healthy relationship with their Autistic sibling with little detrimental effect to their own development.
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