Having Siblings Can Boost Daily-Living Skills for People with Autism, Study Shows

There are lots of great reasons to love having siblings, but a recent study shows there might be one more important reason why siblings are valuable, specifically to kids on the autism spectrum.

The new study, which was presented virtually at the 2021 International Society for Autism Research, shows that having a sibling may help a person with autism navigate their daily lives better and pick up new life skills more easily.

It’s not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum to struggle with adaptive functioning, communication, socialization, and age-appropriate daily tasks. However, studies have shown that regularly engaging in social time with peers can help improve these skills.

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Nicole Rosen, a graduate student in Catherine Lord‘s lab at the University of California in Los Angeles, says the research team chose to study siblings because they are commonly the peers we interact with most as children.

“We know that the sibling relationship is considered one of the most transformative and meaningful relationships that an individual may have,” says Rosen.

Siblings are believed to have a positive impact on theory-of-mind abilities and social skills for children with autism, but the new research shows they may also have a similarly positive effect on adaptive functioning. In other words, siblings “represent a key medium” through which autistic people can improve their skills.

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Lord, Rosen, and colleagues used the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales questionnaire to measure daily-living skills and age-appropriate communication and social skills in 208 participants with autism or another developmental condition. They followed these children from age 9 to 26, measuring their skills six times over the course of the study.

The researchers learned that participants who had siblings improved their skills more over time than those who were only children. Those participants who were close in age to a non-autistic brother improved faster than those who were closest in age to a non-autistic sister. It should also be noted, however, that children improved faster when closest in age to a sibling of the same gender than when closest in age to a sibling of the opposite gender.

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The number of siblings and the autistic child’s place in the family’s birth order, however, seemed to have no effect on the participants’ rate of improvement.

People on the spectrum benefitted from having siblings regardless of their racial backgrounds, but Black children saw the largest benefit from having siblings, the researchers noted. However, Rosen cautions that differences between racial groups should be approached carefully, as this is the first study of its kind and does not prove a difference between races.

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The researchers believe their findings could be helpful when it comes to family-planning decisions. Some parents worry that having a big family might negatively impact a child with autism, but the results of this study suggest having more children might have the opposite effect, because siblings are an important source of support for people on the spectrum.

Rosen even believes involving siblings in interventions for a child with autism may maximize the development of the skills those interventions are meant to improve. So don’t be afraid of having a big family just because you’re worried it might cause sensory overload or you might not be able to give your autistic child all the attention he or she needs. Siblings are more of a help than you know!

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