Siblings are Special Too

By: Natalie El-Alam, Allison Salk, Rachel Christensen & Suzi Naguib, Psy.D.

SibshopsPatricia was enjoying the afternoon with her children along the lakeshore. She looked up and watched her three kids as they played in the sand. She was relieved they were getting along so well today; it was not always like this. Some days, not one minute would go by without constant bickering and arguments. That is typical of siblings though—their love- hate relationship. But wait, is it? At this thought, Patricia began to worry again. Her youngest, Lucas, had just been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and she wondered if her children’s relationships really were actually typical like other siblings. She also worried for Sophia and Mia, her two daughters, and how they would handle being an older sibling to Lucas. Would Sophia and Mia have a typical upbringing or would they struggle as a result of Lucas’ challenges?

Siblings are not expected to get along with each other all of the time. There will be times when fighting and arguing seem to take over the relationship, but there are also moments when siblings appear to be the best of friends, like in the example above. Each relationship is unique depending on the siblings, parents, and other family members involved2.

Relationships between brothers and sisters help children foster and learn new skills that they will use later in their lives; it is “extra practice” for the real world2. The relationships that children have with their siblings are distinctive from their relationships with other children, like classmates or neighbors, and plenty of research looking into their effects has been conducted. These studies are inconsistent, however, and new research on this topic is always appearing3. This blog is intended to introduce the reader to some of the research on this topic, including some of the difficulties that a sibling of a child with special needs may experience. On the other hand, some of the potential benefits are also noted. Lastly, some guidance on how to support their children is offered to parents and caregivers, like Patricia.

Potential struggles
According to some researchers, siblings of children with ASD may have a more difficult sibling relationship than the relationship between two typically developing siblings2. This difficulty may or may not influence the adjustment of the typically developing child. For example, children who have a sibling with ASD, may have anxiety levels that are greater than normal and may have lower levels of pro-social behavior2. In addition, given that these sibling relationships are different than others, many typically developing children see their relationship with their brother or sister in a more negative light, oftentimes feeling embarrassment or anger. Although the exact reasons why this occurs is unknown, these negative emotions may arise if a child notices that they are being teased or bullied because of their sibling with ASD, if difficulties that their brother or sister is having prevent them from having or doing something that they want, or if they perceive that their sibling with ASD is receiving more attention from parents than they are. Along with these feelings, the typically developing child may feel lonely, concerned about their parents’ stress and grief, or worried about their role in future caregiving3.

Potential benefits
There are also benefits to growing up with a sibling with special needs. Although a large amount of research has found that siblings do have adjustment problems, such as the ones outlined above, these problems may fall within the normal range of behavior4. Compared to other children, brothers and sisters of a special child may get more practice being patient and showing acceptance and compassion and may encounter more situations that require flexibility and problem solving. This practice early in life will help promote positive personal characteristics that will benefit them forever7.

What can parents do?
It is important that parents of a special child are aware of some of the difficulties that typically developing siblings may experience in this unique sibling relationship. In addition, it is also crucial that parents are cognizant of the many ways that they can support their typically developing child6. Open communication and expression of emotion is not only important so that children can better understand their sibling with ASD, but also so that they can better understand their own personal emotions. There are also support groups available in many communities for all family members of children with ASD, and evidence shows that social support might be related to adaptive coping and adjustment6.  In addition, ensuring both family time and special time alone with your typically developing child may help the child to feel valued and included6.

For additional parent guidelines follow this link to the Autism Society of America ( More detailed resources can be found online, including “The Sibling Support Project of the Arc of the United States” (, a national organization that provides Sibshop workshops for siblings of children with development disabilities, online information, and opportunities for siblings to connect with other siblings across the nation. In addition, Autism Speaks has a sibling’s guide to autism, meant to be an interactive tool kit for parents and siblings to read together (

When to seek additional help for your child?
If your child’s difficulties appear to impact their ability to function at home and/or at school, you may need to seek professional help. Additional red flags include changes in sleep and eating habits, complaints of aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, withdrawal, irritability and frequent crying.

Sunfield Center psychologists are available to help children, siblings and families with special needs. To schedule an appointment, please call us at (734) 222-9277.

1 Quintero, N. & McIntyre, L. L. (2010). Sibling adjustment and maternal well-being: An examination of families with and without a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(1), 37-46. doi: 10.1177/1088357609350367
2 Ross, P. & Cuskelly, M. (2006). Adjustment, sibling problems and coping strategies of brothers and sisters of children with autistic spectrum disorder. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 31(2), 77-86. doi: 10.1080/136682506000710864
3 Smith, L. O. & Elder, J. H. (2010). Siblings and family environments of persons with autism spectrum disorder: A review of the literature. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 23(3), 189-195. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6171.2010.00240.x
4 Tsao, L., Davenport, R., & Schmiege, C. (2012). Supporting siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(1), 47-54. doi: 10.1007/s10643-011-0488-3
5 Smith, L.O., Elder, J. H., Storch, E. A., & Rowe, M. A. (2014). Predictors of sense of coherence in typically developing adolescent siblings of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. doi: 10.1111/jir.12124
6 Verte, S., Roeyers, H. H., & Buysse, A. A. (2003). Behavioural problems, social competence and self-concept in siblings of children with autism. Child: Care, Health, and Development, 29(3), 193-205. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2214.2003.00331.x 7 Wheeler, M. (2006). Siblings perspectives: Some guidelines for parents. The Reporter, 11(2), 13-15. – See more at:
7Anita Gurian. (undefined). The Child Study Center. In Siblings of Children with Special Needs. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from