How to talk about autistic meltdowns with siblings

Team Kindship
March 25, 2022
6 minutes

Relationships between siblings look different for each family. I think a common theme is a one of a kind uniquely special bond with a mix of sibling rivalry and a fair share of conflict at times…. all part of the ‘growing up with siblings’ process.

Having a sibling with autism however brings a whole new element and can be quite an overwhelming and draining experience for a sibling at times. Dealing with autism anger and autism meltdowns can be confusing for parents let alone siblings so it's important to keep communication open as soon as they are at an age to understand.

If the sibling is older they may feel the impact a little more than that of a younger sibling. Autism presents challenges in a family dynamic on a day-to-day basis, the type of challenges that weren’t there before their autistic sibling came along. This may leave feelings of resentment at times. A younger sibling knows no different so may be able to adapt a little more but either way communication is key.

Explaining autism in an age appropriate way

Autism can be quite difficult to understand, I know myself that I am constantly learning and adapting. Explaining autism can be difficult to siblings but a key message that is important to reiterate is that while autism is a little different, it's not wrong that their sibling isn’t ‘naughty’ their mind just works a little differently.

My 4 year old is aware that her older sister has something called autism but she is too young to have any real understanding and it doesn’t really seem to phase her as she doesn’t know any difference. When she begins to become more aware the communication will be more open but for now it's simply “Sometimes her autism just makes her get a little bit frustrated and upset”.

She doesn’t even really need this as she doesn’t seem phased but I think the awareness from a young age is important to let them know it's not something that we are hiding but rather just one aspect of their sibling that makes them who they are.

It can be a little bit more difficult and challenging for older siblings. Their life was a little bit more ‘simple’ before their autistic sibling came along, they had more attention and the family dynamic was similar to that of their friends and families. The reality is that it does present its fair share of confronting moments and autism meltdowns can be quite overwhelming to witness.

It’s vital to be open and ensure that they feel they can share any feelings they may have. Asking them what they know about autism, how they feel about it or what they might find difficult or overwhelming is great for opening up conversations and ensuring they feel comfortable voicing their own emotions.

Autism meltdowns

Autism meltdowns can be extreme, last for hours and for a sibling can be very hard to watch or understand.

Why does their sibling act like this?

Why do they get so much attention?

Why is it so hard to play with them?

Many questions can be pondered and it’s so important to ensure that they feel they can openly ask them.

Now that my eldest is getting older I feel that she is able to cope a little more when her sister is having a hard time. There was one time in which school shoe shopping caused an array of sensory overload triggers for my autistic child. Often she keeps it together in public and lets it all out in the car or at home, but this particular day it was all too much. Perhaps one of her more extreme meltdowns in which I pulled out all the tricks to try to bring some calmness back to her world, meanwhile her other two sisters were waiting together for it to pass. My heart sank knowing that they were probably worried, confused and embarrassed. Later on I made a point to talk to my eldest and asked her how she felt, in which she replied “It was ok, I understand why she had a meltdown but it just made me upset and angry that a boy laughed at her”. I had no idea, so this further confirmed to me the importance of chatting it out with siblings.

Some key points to consider when discussing and navigating autistic meltdowns with siblings

-Remember they may feel embarrassed or ashamed if their sibling is having a meltdown in public. This may be hard for them to admit in the fear that they will get in trouble, validate any and all feelings. Confess times that you too have felt negative feelings and communicate how they can be necessary to feel to help bring understanding and perspective to situations. Ensure they are aware that feeling emotions in a certain way doesn’t mean that they don’t love their sibling, it just means that sometimes they may struggle and that’s ok.

-Siblings should never be punished. Sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when diffusing a meltdown and when stress levels are up it is easy to say things that don’t come out right. Perhaps the meltdown stemmed from the siblings playing and you say “You shouldn’t have been playing that '' or “Why didn’t you just let them have it”. More often than not the meltdown would have happened regardless of what did or didn’t happen to trigger it. It’s important to speak to siblings about it after the meltdown has diffused rather than during it. Emotions have calmed for everyone and if perhaps the sibling has triggered the meltdown it can be taken care of in a more composed and sensitive way.

-Ensuring safety is paramount so discussing what to do when their sibling is having autism rage is important. Communicating the signs of when they are triggered and explaining how it is best to leave the situation. Take them to a quiet place and leave their sibling to work through it. Sometimes I think my daughter feels it’s her responsibility to diffuse the situation, which can be dangerous if it’s a physical meltdown. Explaining and talking through meltdowns that are overwhelming or frightening can help to reduce fear. It assists in reiterating that it is their way to cope sometimes and that their autistic sibling isn’t hurt or in any pain.

-Autistic siblings may feel a sense of helplessness. It's important to teach them that leaving their sibling to regulate is actually the best thing that they can do. Ensure they understand that autism anger is an emotion that has derived from over stimulation and not anything to do with them.

-Communication is key and ongoing discussions are so important. It only needs to take a few minutes but it can be useful to have a little chat about the autism meltdown to continue to bring understanding and awareness to their siblings' needs. Bring perspective and openly discuss why their sibling reacted that way and why sometimes they have different reactions to the same event.

I believe that it is so important that siblings are well equipped with the knowledge that will assist them in handling and coping with their siblings autistic meltdowns. Conversations and open discussions regularly will contribute to doing this in a sensitive way. It’s important to validate their feelings and ensure that they feel comfortable in voicing any emotions or opinions in a non-judgemental way.