Managing sibling rilvery when one has autism

Team Kindship
March 27, 2022
5 minutes

The only parents that escape the agony of sibling rivalry are those who have one child. It’s not escapable! An inevitable part of growing up with a sibling, so parents simply need to strap themselves in for the ride I guess.

But why do Kelly’s kids get along so well, and your house is a constant world war two extravaganza, full of fights, tormenting, bickering and competitive feuds? While it may seem like some siblings get along, I assure you sibling rivalry escapes no family. So, rest assured, you’re not alone.

The fact is brothers and sisters are bound to bicker. But what happens when you have one child with autism? The demands on the whole family are completely different, time is scarce, parents are more exhausted, and the environment can be more heightened in general.

It can be extremely tiring dealing with rivalry when one has autism and your neurotypical child may feel like they are constantly the one that is in trouble. You unintentionally make allowances for their sibling as their needs are different and you may often be left feeling guilty as you are just so stretched with your autistic child’s needs that you just don’t have much left to give at times.

It was only the other day my daughter was having a particularly heightened day and her sister decided they wanted to play teachers. NOOOOOOO bloody hell not today, it's inevitable that it will end badly. Before I knew it, I was the mediator of constant bickering. My daughter struggles to happily play on the best of days let alone on a day where looking at her the wrong way can tip her over the edge. I could foresee the future but couldn’t stop it and then bam the final moment that created the meltdown to end all play.

“You are Miss Thompson and I am Mrs Thompson”

“No, I am Mrs”

“NO! We can’t have two the same that’s stupid!'' This continued for some time before outrage erupted.

Nothing I could do would help as once an autism meltdown has peaked words and actions don’t mean anything. The game ended and I spent time trying to calm my autistic daughter while my eldest was once again frustrated and upset that it was just always so difficult to play with her sister.

Siblings may feel that having autism means that their sister or brother simply has a free pass to lose their shit. They can feel left out, confused and frustrated or jealous of the attention their autistic sibling receives. They could even face a sense of worry that the stress that autism places on the whole family.

Strategies to help cope with sibling rivalry when autism is in the picture.

While having a sibling with autism can be challenging at times it can also be a hugely positive experience for a sibling. One of which makes them more compassionate, understanding, tolerant and responsive to the needs of others. All wonderful qualities which can make for a very fulfilling and happy life. There are a few strategies that you can put in place to ensure your child is able to understand and cope with the challenges that an autistic sibling can present.

  1. Explain Autism

Help them understand what autism is, do it early and do it often. Giving an insight into their world “Willows autism sometimes means it is difficult for her to understand how you are feeling, but it's something she is learning more about”. It's important to bring awareness to their siblings’ strengths and challenges so that they can learn more about them. This can help strengthen their relationship, reduce anxiety and give them a clearer understanding about why they act the way they do.

  1. Make special time

It is unavoidable that your child with autism will take up more of your time. To ensure their sibling knows that even though this may be the case at times that they are equally as special and loved. An important way that this can be shown is by making special time just for them. Now this doesn’t mean that each week you need to plan extravagant meaningful dates. It could be as simple as dedicating just 10mintues a day to focus purely on them, having them sleep in your bed for a sleepover every now and again, acknowledging them for being a great sibling, planning outings just for you two, giving them special little treats just because. It's little things like this that can help to maintain a healthy relationship with their sibling as it can help to take some jealousy away. It can also boost their confidence and self-assurance.

  1. Set family rules/roles/responsibilities for all children

One thing you don’t want to portray is that because of their sibling’s autism they ‘get out’ of certain things. It’s important to assure them that there are the same expectations. My daughter with autism swears like a trooper, a lot of the time it can be a coping mechanism for certain situations but now it seems to just be second nature. Of course, I don’t applaud it, but hey sometimes you just have to pick your battles and I would take a few swear words over an intense physical meltdown any day. That being said though it wouldn’t be fair if my eldest daughter dropped a ‘shit’ or an F bomb every now and again and was punished more so then her sister. So, I simply remind her to watch her language and that it's not appropriate.

Also, if one sibling is doing chores it’s not fair for the other to get off scotch free. The chores and responsibilities may look different, but it has to be fair that everyone is involved and plays their part. Making too many allowances for your child with autism not only can cause feelings of jealousy and resentment for their sibling but it actually does no favors for your autistic child.

  1. Don’t do everything as a family

Not everything has to be done together all of the time. In fact, this could result in one child missing out as it's just ‘too hard’ to manage with the autistic child so you therefore don’t do it. If your child with autism doesn’t cope with the sand at the beach and the sounds of the waves, simply don’t take them. It isn’t fair for your children who love the beach to miss out.

  1. Remind them they are not alone

It can feel lonely having an autistic sibling, they may see their friends having ‘normal’ and different relationships with their siblings and this may cause some negative feelings about their home life.

It’s important to remind them that there are many people in the world who have autism and many siblings that may feel the same as they do sometimes. It's also significant to assure them that all siblings have fights and that it's normal for brothers and sisters to not get along all of the time.

  1. Acknowledge feelings

Give your child a safe space to share their feelings and ensure that they are validated. They need to feel comfortable in voicing emotions even if they may not be politically correct or seem harsh. Start conversations by sharing your own feelings “Gosh it can be exhausting sometimes when your sister acts that way”, this can assure them that just because they acknowledge that their sibling can be difficult doesn’t take away their love for them.

  1. Teach them basic strategies to cope with their sibling

By being open about her sister's autism I can give my daughter advice on how to play with her “Remember that your sister struggles when play changes from her repetitive play, maybe you could give her a heads-up when you want to change some of the game”.

Give them tips like “Make sure you give your sisters simple instructions” or “Don’t forget to praise your sister if she does something nice for you, it might motivate her to do it more”.

The other day in the midst of a meltdown I was getting a little frustrated as I couldn’t diffuse it. My eldest daughter came up and gave her sister two simple choices while using her hands to symbolise the choices she gave. I was so proud of her ability to read her sister's cues and how she was able to observe how I have successfully interacted with her previously to mimic it herself. I could see how this gave her a sense of pride and empowerment too. While you don’t want to create pressure on them to feel the need to constantly help their sibling it can give them feelings of self-importance knowing they are an advocate for their sibling.

I know firsthand the pressure that is placed on your parenting when one of your children has autism. You are constantly overwhelmed and mentally drained trying to ensure you meet the demands of all of your children’s needs. Some days you nail it and feel like you deserve a cape and other days you admit defeat and countdown the minutes until bedtime. But each day you turn up and give what you can on that day. Managing sibling rivalry can be a turbulent part of parenting but it's an aspect that we all deal with, while autism can present extra challenges we adapt and come up with strategies that can best suit the needs of all family members.