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Solution: Encourage honesty and laugh
"Interestingly, a lot of these [typical sibs] are more outspoken," says Levy of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. "They'll go up to people and say, 'Yes, that's my brother. He has special needs. Do you have any questions?'"
My son Joey is one of those kids. When he was 6, we were at a bus stop when Nate started jumping up and down and making weird noises just being Nate. When Joey's friend started making fun of Nate, Joey got right in her face and said, "Do NOT make fun of my brother again! Everybody learns differently." They were my words coming from Joey's mouth.
Several parents I interviewed said a sense of humor is key. "Your typical child can see the humor in the actions of his autistic siblings," says Bounds, father to Charlie and Alex. "It's okay to talk about his or her 'weird brother' in a way that signals that you both know this isn't normal."
When Nate does something bizarre in public, which is just about whenever he's in public, Joey and I often give each other an Oh, my God! look and roll our eyes, which sort of says, "We're in this together."
Challenge #5: "I feel like the parent."
Angela Bryan-Brown, 15, says she often feels like a parent to her 14-year-old brother Alasdair. "You don't have a choice," says Angie. "You've got to help out, and your parents can only do so much. They're so stressed out." Angie's mom Florie Seery refers to Angie as "the third parent in the house" and "an old soul," a phrase I've heard often from other parents.
Elliot says of his siblings' disorder: "Even though I'm four years younger, it places me in the position of being the older brother." (Read "New Clues to Autism's Cause.")
Solution: Let sibs be children too
"It's a challenge for children to feel that sense of responsibility for their sibling," says Harris. "A wise parent works hard to temper that and to make the responsibilities fitting to the age of the siblings. An older sister can keep her brother entertained for half an hour because an older sister would typically do that to help out but she's not a parent."
For young siblings, Harris suggests counseling them: "'It's wonderful to care about your brother, but you're my little boy too. Because your brother has trouble learning sometimes, he might need help from you, but you're not his mommy or daddy. We will take care of him when he needs help.' That kind of message reaffirms one's love and lifts that burden."
Challenge #6: The holidays
"Attending loud, busy social gatherings with new sights, sounds, smells, intrusive relatives and strange places overwhelms the best of us, let alone those with sensitive sensory systems," says Dr. Raun Melmed of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. "Of course, when the child gets overwhelmed and melts down, so do the siblings and parents."
"In short, holidays suck, especially the ones you spend outside your own home," says dad, Bounds. "They're full of the most dreaded thing in an autistic life unstructured time. People get together with relatives and friends and talk which is sort of hard to do when your child has your sister-in-law's cat by the throat and is about to put him in the food processor."
Solution: Ask family members to help
Harris suggests that parents "create a rotating team of adults. Each person spends a half-hour with the child, so that parents and siblings aren't trapped, and the child doesn't have to be exposed to the chaos of the party. Cousins and aunts can take a turn."
Siblings, however, should be spared. "The typically developing kid wants the holiday to come. She's off from school, she's getting her present and she can't really enjoy that" if she's expected to take care of her autistic brother or sister, says social worker Snyder-Vogel.
Challenge #7: In adulthood, the sibs will become "parents"
Someday, inevitably, the sibling of an autistic child will most likely take on the role of guardian and advocate. "You're basically at some point going to be their parent," says Kelly Reynolds, 21. "Anyone I want to marry has to take that into account. In some ways you kind of feel like you already have a kid. ... For me, it's kind of a deal-breaker when someone can't really get along with my brother. He's such a big part of my life."
Solution: Discuss future plans with adult children
Parents should talk about financial plans and any care arrangements that have been made, once typical siblings are old enough, says Harris in a recent article for the Autism Society of America. But this isn't a discussion to initiate with younger children unless they bring the topic up on their own.
Many of the children I interviewed showed deep concern for their autistic brothers and sisters. And nearly all of the professionals and doctors I talked with said that a disproportionate number of their students and residents were siblings of people with autism. "I'm very interested in trying to help find a cure," says 15-year-old Elliot, who closely follows news about the disorder. "I'd just like to get a neat little pill someday for my siblings that they can pop in with their apple juice and hopefully be normal."