What Parents Can Do to Help
Though life with autism can sometimes be stressful for all parties involved, there are things parents can do to help alleviate stress in their neurotypical children and make them feel loved, valued, and supported.
1. Regularly take some time devoted solely to your neurotypical child.
Naturally, autism siblings may feel that much of their parents’ attention is devoted to their brother or sister on the spectrum. As a result, they may feel lonely or jealous. A good way to handle this is to set aside special time for just you and your neurotypical child. That can look however you want it to—a special movie night on Friday evenings, a lunch date every weekend, a half-hour-long bedtime ritual of some sort, a chunk of time set aside to just talk…all that matters is that you stay consistent and give them all your attention during that time period.
2. Don’t leave them wondering.
Regardless of age, your neurotypical child may have questions or concerns about their brother or sister. Be sure to tell them about your other child’s autism—explain what it is, why their sibling requires more of your time, why you may treat your children differently, how to interact with their sibling, how to handle the reactions and opinions of others, etc. Assure your child that communication channels are totally open, and that any honest questions they have about their sibling are not “wrong” or “bad.”
3. Respect their space and time.
Many autism siblings, at their parents’ request, end up in a caretaking position at some point or another, whether it’s just for a few hours or a longer period of time. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; neurotypical siblings can and should pitch in to help, but they also need time and space to do their homework, participate in after-school activities, get together with friends, cultivate their hobbies and interests, and overall just live their own lives. If you and/or your partner need to leave the house for something and your neurotypical child is feeling overwhelmed or needs space, consider looking into respite care.
4. Celebrate the little things.
When you have a child on the spectrum, no milestone or achievement is too small to celebrate. But “normal” and expected milestones and accomplishments may be overlooked in typically-developing children. Because, you know…they were expected. Try to avoid letting this happen. Treat your neurotypical child’s milestones with the same amount of celebration and praise as you would for your child with autism. That will help boost their self-esteem, and it will also make them feel loved and appreciated.
There may be times when your neurotypical child needs to express emotions, frustrations, concerns, and other experiences surrounding their sibling with autism. If and when they come to you with these things, it is vital to listen. Remember: what your child chooses to do with their emotions can be good or bad, but feelings themselves are not inherently right or wrong; they just are. And whether or not you agree with how your child feels, their emotions are valid and acceptable. Engage in active listening and do what you can to address their needs—whether that means taking some sort of lasting action, doling out advice, or just giving them a much-needed hug.