Teaching Siblings of Children with Autism to be Disability Advocates

girls-946288_1280Parents want their children to grow into confident, caring, and capable adults who respect everyone, including those with disabilities. In families with a disabled sibling, parents often additionally encourage acceptance of differences in a more personal and immersive way than those without one. The challenges of devoting individual time to each child’s personal development is coupled with extraordinary opportunities to teach disability acceptance and advocacy. This article discusses the unique power siblings have as disability advocates and outlines 6 tips for helping your other children learn to advocate for their siblings and others on the spectrum.

The Power of Sibling Advocacy

Siblings have a powerful and significant platform for disability advocacy. Below are a few reasons why their role is so special and important:

  • Siblings most often outlive parents. They will have the longest familial relationship. What you teach your other children will have a lasting impact on your autistic child’s development.
  • The peer nature of the sibling relationship makes them uniquely positioned for long-term support and advocacy roles. They experience life alongside their siblings and can offer support each step of the way, including areas like employment, education, relationships, and housing.
  • Peer advocates may have a stronger impact on curbing bullying or modeling positive interactions with disabled peers. While it’s always best for adults to get involved in any bullying situation, siblings who learn to stand up for each other and call out bad behavior can send a powerful message to other peers. Younger children especially can have powerful voices because of their tendency to speak simply for change without a worry about political correctness.

Tip #1: Teach Them the Difference Between Tolerance, Awareness, and Acceptance

Start using the language of advocacy at an early age, including the difference between tolerance, awareness, and acceptance. This is an important distinction because it is reflective of the specific ways individuals treat members of the disabled community. Autistic advocate Kassiane Sibley discusses this difference in Steve Silberman’s essay “Autism Awareness is Not Enough: Here’s How to Change the World,” which was later also published in the Loud Hands anthology. She says:

“Tolerance and awareness are nowhere near enough. Teach acceptance early and often…Teach them, from a very young age, that some people are not like them and this is AWESOME. Tolerance says ‘Well, I have to put up with you.’ Awareness says ‘I know you have a problem and are working earnestly to fix it.’ Acceptance says ‘You are amazing because you are you, and not despite your differences, but because of them.’…Make that the norm.”

Understanding these language differences and advocating for acceptance helps change the way autism is treated by our society.

In that same essay, Paula C. Durbin-Westby adds that parents should “Teach children to respect and accept differences, including disability. This suggestion has ramifications far beyond the disability world.”

The increasing autism prevalence rate (or apparent increasing diagnostic rate, depending on which body of evidence you believe) has thrust the disorder into the public spotlight, and it seems like everyone knows of someone who is affected by it. This awareness makes teaching disability acceptance all the more crucial to contributing to an inclusive and supportive society that optimizes its growth/development potential.

Tip #2: Open Communication About Autism and Disability

Tell your children that is is okay to talk about their sibling’s disability, even if their feelings are negative. All relationships exhibit anger and frustration at times, and working through this is an important part of healthy development. Discuss different aspects of your child’s autism diagnosis in age-appropriate ways. This will inevitably help your other children better understand autism and autistic behavior.

Tip #3: Engage with Disabled People

Make an effort to interact with autistics and other disabled people [See my earlier post on Befriending Autistic Adults]. This will offer you invaluable insight into the autistic mind as well as ideas for teaching advocacy. Additionally, by engaging with other autistic people, you can model what acceptance looks like in the adult world for your other children.

Tip #4: Teach Ways to Communicate with Their Autistic Siblings

Teach your children all of the important communication and play skills you learn that work for your autistic child. Encourage sibling interactions by introducing activities that will hold both of their interests. Show them ways they can enjoy playing with or alongside their autistic sibling. Once they gain confidence in engaging with their siblings, they will be more likely to communicate their autistic brother or sister’s specific social and emotional needs.

Tip #5: Model Treating Your Autistic Child As Normal

Parents of autistic children may sometimes feel as if they give most of their attention to their autistic child and not enough to the rest of their family. But any effort to equalize the division of praise and attention, for example, can go a long way in modeling normalcy. Normalcy doesn’t have to mean that you act as if the disability doesn’t exist. Rather, you create a new climate of normalcy for your family while still offering your non-disabled children adequate attention.

Tip #6: Show Them Other Siblings Who Have an Autistic Brother or Sister

It can also be especially helpful to introduce your other children to other siblings who have an autistic brother or sister. You can find family support groups or other sibling events where they can meet other people their age living in similar home environments. This may offer an opportunity for them to share experiences and offer support and helpful strategies that will ultimately lead to better advocacy skills.

Siblings of autistic children have a unique opportunity to learn about autism, how to live respectfully, and how to treat people with dignity. Try not to give them too much responsibility as you teach them to model advocacy and recognize their individual needs in the process.

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