Supporting Siblings of Children With Special Needs

Each child in your family has a different personality, brings a different energy, and influences your family dynamic. Although you have unity as a family, you enjoy a unique relationship with each of your children. Having a child with special needs often encourages you as a parent to attend to each of your children differently. You balance evaluations, therapy, and visits to specialists with pizza parties, sleepovers, and Boy Scouts.

Training parents in Applied Behavior Analysis techniques in the home provides me an opportunity to have an inside look at family dynamics. The goal of many of these training sessions is to incorporate strategies from ABA into existing family routines. This involves taking each family member's role and expectations into account and often times, working with siblings to help them understand and support these strategies. This can be a lot of information for young children to digest, so parents and I work closely to ensure the needs of all children in the house are being met.

Below are effective strategies for supporting siblings of children with special needs.

Let her be a child Many siblings of children with disabilities are wise beyond their years, and often develop "mother hen" characteristics. While she may naturally become protective of her sibling, your child should be allowed to have the care-free childhood that her peers have. Make sure she enjoys sleepovers, play dates, and extra curricular activities. Keep adult conversations about your child with disabilities between adults. Avoid saying "It's your job to watch him," especially if the children attend the same school. That's a lot of pressure for a young person.

What to sayYour child will surely have questions about his sibling. You will share as much information as you are comfortable with. Some families prefer not to use the name of the diagnosis or disability as they feel it generates a pre-conceived notion. Some families choose to teach siblings the name and characteristics of the disability. Ask your child's teacher for resources to share with your family. She may have books, videos, or websites specific to your child's disability. The Autism Acceptance Book by Ellen Sabin focuses on being a friend to someone with autism. My Sibling Dolls was created by a mother of four and special education teacher and creates dolls that come with a story from the perspective of a sibling of someone with a disability. Sometimes outside sources can be the catalyst to open a conversation with your child.

Visit her sibling's classroom Your child with special needs may attend a specialized school or be educated in a self-contained class in your district. Ask the teacher to give your child a tour of her sibling's classroom so she can see what his day looks like. It is important for her to understand how her sibling learns and why his class is different. Allow her to ask questions while she's there. She may even be surprised to see similarities between her classroom and her sibling's.

Make him feel special You sometimes spend more time at doctors' visits or have more school meetings for your child with special needs. His siblings can interpret this as you paying more attention to him. It could be one hour per week that you set aside for each of your children, time to engage with them individually. It could be cooking each child's favorite meal, playing a game with each child, or reading each child's favorite book at bedtime. Find some way to connect to each of your children throughout the week to make each child feel special and valued. Verbally express that this is time for only the two of you and that it is special to you, too.

Provide an outlet Your child may feel a variety of emotions about her sibling. She could feel proud, protective, or hopeful one day and worried, disappointed, or angry another. It is important to afford your child the opportunity to feel all these emotions and deal with them appropriately. Provide your child with a journal to write about her feelings. There may be an adult- an aunt, older cousin, or family friend- in whom your child can confide. Look for support groups for siblings of children with disabilities. Check in with him often and have honest, supportive discussions about his feelings. Remember that your child is affected by her sibling's victories and setbacks, so support her through each.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.