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Challenge #1: "Why won't he play with me?"
For younger siblings of autistic children, one of their first doses of reality usually comes when their older brother or sister won't play. "The child on the [autism] spectrum may seem indifferent or have a meltdown when the sibling tries to interact," says Rutgers' Harris.
Seven-year-old Adam, whose autistic brother Jacob is 11, says, "I can't really play games with Jacob like I can with my cousin Eric [also 11]. Jacob likes to play games on the computer but by himself, not with me. He gets too angry if he loses and then doesn't want to play." Adam's father, Paul, says soberly, "I'm sure Eric represents the brother Adam might have had." (Read "A Link Between Autism and Testosterone?")
Solution: Find common ground
Parents can start by telling the typical sibling that his brother or sister "is doing the best he can, and here are some things you can do with him," says Judy Levy, director of social work at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. "Maybe in the future he'll be able to learn to play with you in other ways, but right now this is what he can do."
Harris encourages parents to "find ways in which the siblings can relate [or] share an interest." That can be something very simple, as Elliot learned at an early age. "It turns out my brothers [Benjamin and Aaron] are really ticklish," says Elliot. "Tickling was a good way to bond with them, and for them to show affection back by laughing and wanting it again." (And again and again and again.)
Challenge #2: "It's not fair!"
Every parent has heard his or her child say, "It's not fair!" But for families with autistic and typical siblings, "not fair" is the reality, when it comes to one child being treated differently from the other. Martin Bounds has one autistic child, Charlie, 13, and one typical child, Alex, 15, about whom Bounds says, "He'd get very upset when he would bump his knee or complain of feeling sick. He thought we weren't sufficiently concerned about him, in the spirit of 'I could be over here dying, and all you care about is Charlie.'"
That may be overstatement, but such sentiments often stem from legitimate gripes. Bounds recalls when he and his wife attended an important fund-raiser for Charlie three years ago, on the same day Alex rode in an annual bike race. "Alex won the race for his age group and was really upset when we were not there to greet him at the finish line," says Bounds. "As much as you try to balance schedules, as parents of an autistic child, you have to basically accept that you are going to have moments when you feel you have cheated your other children, and those moments are awful."
Solution: Create special time
Harris urges parents to set aside alone-time with their typical kids every week. "Private time can even [include] riding in the car to pick up the laundry," she says, "but since [the child is] with Daddy, [he or she is] the focus of his attention."
Some kids, like Elliot, develop new hobbies as a way to spend time with a parent. "Gardening was something I could do with just my mom it was never easy to get my mom to myself," he says. Elliot began gardening five years ago; he's now a junior judge at flower shows and grows about 330 varieties at home, including the 170 seedlings he has hybridized.
For single parents, however, eking out one-on-one time can be a daunting task. As a widowed mom, I know firsthand we do the best we can with the time we have. Single dad Ron Barth says his autistic 9-year-old, Daniel, "dominates everything, so I have to make special moments with Nicole [age 15], like taking her shopping without Daniel." But, says Barth, "There aren't enough of those moments."
Challenge #3: "I'm scared!"
Some autistic children are aggressive, which can be scary and dangerous, especially for younger kids. And parents can't possibly keep an eye on their kids every second which is about the amount of time it took for one child I interviewed to get squirted in the eyes with Windex by her younger autistic brother. (She survived just fine.) Even my son Nate, who isn't aggressive but is twice the size of Joey, often hugs Joey tight. Very tight. Around the neck. When Joey yells "MOM!" I've learned to tell the difference between Mom, can you help me find my Gameboy? and MOM, he's choking me! (Read "Fragile X: Unraveling Autism's Secrets.")
Solution: Find a safe haven
"I tell parents to have a 'safe place,' usually the child's room, where the typical child can go while an adult handles the behavior problem," says Harris. "Then, as soon as they can, the parents should comfort the typical child and help him or her understand what happened."
Harris also suggests that parents develop an "intervention plan" to teach the child with autism alternate behaviors such as asking to be left alone, or using words, cards or a special gesture when he or she feels upset. "Kids with autism can learn to go their room, sit in a beanbag chair, or do something else that helps them calm themselves," says Harris.
Challenge #4: "He's so embarrassing!"
It's common for siblings to feel embarrassed by their autistic brother or sister's behavior in public, or to be reluctant to bring their friends home. Kelly Reynolds, 21, says it can be difficult introducing her autistic brother, Will, to her friends: "It's hard to have a young child in an older kid's body. [Will] may go up to one of my girlfriends and sit on her on the couch which probably would have been cute when he was five years old but he's 17 now," Reynolds says. "That can be hard because you can tell when someone feels awkward or scared or thrown off."