Nurturing the Siblings of Your Special Needs Child
One of the issues my husband and I often discuss is the well-being of our older child. With a severely autistic younger sister, my eldest spends a great deal of time in the car to and from therapy and waiting for us to take care of one of her sister’s tantrums. Plus, she often doesn’t get to participate in activities with her peers because of our family dynamic. So, we worry about how this will affect her in the long term.
We’ve talked to many people and spent a great deal of time coming up with ways to counterbalance some of the emotional burden eldest deals with on a daily basis.
Here are some of the solutions we’ve come up with and have gleaned from others:
Spend individual time with your typical children. Make time for each parent to get away with the other children in the family. My husband takes eldest out to movies and out to eat once or twice a month. He also spends time with her while I am doing something with Rachel. And vice-versa. He gives me time to take eldest places with her friends or just the two of us.
Be open about your child’s disability. I’ve always been honest with my eldest about the issues her sister faces. I’ve never sugar-coated autism and have gone to great pains to explain it to her and any of her friends who have questions. We don’t hide our issues, but we always act to protect Rachel and help others to understand her.
Plan projects. One of my hobbies is cake decorating, so I involve eldest in my projects that don’t require a professional touch. I’ve let her make birthday cakes for her sister, and we do a lot of just-for-fun baking. The other day we decorated a gingerbread house together. The cleanup is no fun, but the time spent with my daughter is worth it.
Get your other children involved in an activity or sport they enjoy. Our daughter is a wonderful dancer, so her dance classes are a priority. We hire babysitters for her performances and allow her to tap dance all she wants at home. Britt Collins, an Occupational Therapist and speaker on sensory issues, said that an outside activity can give siblings of special needs children a feeling of importance and build their self-esteem. I think it can add to their feeling of normalcy and give them an outlet away from the stresses at home.
Encourage hobbies and interests. This is also good for your special needs child. Dr. Temple Grandin says that, in many cases, this can lead to life work and a career for people on the autism spectrum.
Allow your child to express his or her feelings. Sometimes my daughter just needs to know we understand how she feels. We all need to verbally express our sorrows and frustrations in an accepting environment. I am also open with my own feelings and shortcomings. We involve her in some of our decisions, especially the ones that will impact her.
Involve the siblings in therapy to the extent possible. We participate in Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and allow our eldest to help out anytime we can. We give her jobs and roles to play in therapy. She often has more success with engaging her sister than we do.
Tell your children they are special. I always remind my eldest that God has blessed Rachel with such an amazing big sister.