The Benefits of Siblings for a Child on the Autism Spectrum
Should you have more kids? What are the benefits and drawbacks of having larger families if at least one of the children is on the autism spectrum? There are plenty of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to expand your family. This is true for families with typically developing children and for those with one on the spectrum. Although every family’s individual needs will vary and thus this can’t be discussed holistically, from our family’s perspective, each new sibling has offered our autistic son many irreplaceable benefits we are grateful for.
This post will mainly discuss the potential benefits of adding another sibling to a family with at least one child on the spectrum; however, I am not trying to ignore or overlook all of the factors that might deter one from making this decision as well. Some important factors families consider are:
- The individuals needs and challenges of the autistic child
- The possibility of having another child on the spectrum and the resources needed to appropriately support them
- The ease with which you are able to have additional children (e.g. difficult or easy pregnancy history, adoption scenarios, etc.)
- How managing the needs of an additional child might impact the level of care and support the other siblings receive.
In our family’s case, our oldest son was diagnosed as autistic, but we felt confident that his needs wouldn’t negatively impact our ability to care for additional children, nor would the needs of other children significantly affect our ability to care for him. We also thought other siblings could offer him a variety of social benefits that we couldn’t provide as parents.
The rest of this post discusses some of the benefits we’ve noticed in our family. While this certainly isn’t indicative of what will happen for every family faced with the decision to expand, I discuss it here to serve as an example for consideration.
Constant Peer Socialization
One advantage we noticed was constant opportunities for peer socialization. Our son preferred to spend time playing alone, but was also comfortable communicating with adults who were patient and interested in his activities. When we introduced a sibling into our family, our son suddenly had plenty of opportunities to interact with another child. As our daughter grew older, she entered his space with more frequency and less caution than any adult did. This forced us to teach play skills and peer communication skills on a regular basis–NOT just contrived scenarios with a therapist, but constant, real-life exchanges every day. These experiences can fuel social development within families and in their communities.
Younger siblings also bring opportunities for leadership and teaching. Older siblings can take pride in knowing some facts and skills that they can teach their younger siblings.We encouraged our son to share his fascination with letters and numbers with his sister in order to help teach her to count and use the alphabet. These opportunities can be great social confidence boosters. They can also help your child on the spectrum bond with a new sibling.
Learning a Concern for Others
Having another sibling around draws attention to the needs of another peer on a regular basis. This means that siblings are aware of the presence of another person that Mom and/or Dad have to care for, and they learn about that person’s interests and personality both through observation and direct teaching of a parent. They learn patience and grow in an understanding of appreciating the activities and company of another peer. Having additional siblings in our family has given us opportunities to draw attention away from the intricacies of our oldest son’s daily life and encourage him to take an interest in others.
While peer advocacy (or any of these other benefits) isn’t reason enough to have more children, it certainly is another advantage. Parents can encourage siblings to stand up for each other, teach others about autism, and support each other however they can. But teaching peer advocacy can be difficult, especially while trying to pay attention to the needs of all your children. For more about how to teach peer advocacy, check out the post Teaching Siblings of Children with Autism to be Disability Advocates.
More Going On
With more siblings in the house, life gets a little crazier because there is simply more going on. This basic difference also gives your children more to do, more to interact with, and more to talk about. Some might argue that as things get busier, there is less time to focus on the individual needs of your autistic child. This can certainly be true, thus the individual’s needs must always be carefully considered.
In our son’s case, we started to reach the point where we wanted him to begin experiencing life more like a kid, and we wanted to stop overrunning his schedule with therapy sessions. We loosened the reigns on the therapy regimen and began embracing a life still focused on meeting his needs, but not dominated by therapy and examining his every behavior. For us, this meant welcoming new siblings, encouraging him to try new activities, and accepting an different kind of busyness as a family of six.
I’m happy with where we are as a family. My autistic son loves his siblings. He considers them his friends and has opportunities to practice appropriate play on a daily basis. The advantages I’ve seen would have bee hard to believe unless I’d lived them out. My first identity as a mom was a fierce advocate for my son, and I worried that introducing another child would hinder my ability to help him develop. But I’ve since seen what a great blessing my other children are to each other and that while regular therapy has helped him immensely, relaxing my analysis of my son’s every behavior has helped him grow too.