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The Effects of an Autistic Child on Siblings

by Amy M. Armstrong, studioD

Being the sibling to an autistic individual is a challenging mix of emotions. At times, the sibling is incredibly proud of the cognitive strides the autistic brother or sister as made. However, the next day, a "neuro-typical" or normal sibling may feel embarrassed by their sibling's strange behavior in public and want to shirk the relationship for awhile. Striking a balance takes time, practice and patience from oneself and parents.

Embarrassing Behaviors

Autistic siblings often engage in behaviors that neuro-typical children and teens find embarrassing and uninformed adults find baffling. Scripting -- which is the non-stop repetition of lines from favorite movies or television shows -- is one such unexpected behavior causing plenty of discomfort for siblings of autistic children. Stimming, otherwise known as self-stimulatory behavior, is another set of behaviors that siblings find embarrassing, as described on the website Autism Help. Stimming can involve but is not limited to tapping ears, making vocal noises, rocking back and forth, licking objects and blinking one's eyes repetitively. When these types of behaviors occur in public settings such as restaurants or sporting events or even in the home when siblings have friend visiting, the embarrassment can be overwhelming.


Autism is a special cognitive and neurological need requiring enormous amounts of time and energy from the parent or caregiver. Often, once a parent has met the high-level needs of their child with autism, that parent doesn't have much energy to offer their neuro-typical children. Sibling rivalry often develops, as neuro-typical children with their own needs and emotional nuances jockey against their extremely demanding challenged sibling, according to By Kate Miller-Wilson, in an article on the Love To Know Autism website. Feelings of resentment toward the needy sibling and the overworked parent combine with feelings of abandonment.

Lack Of Relationship With Sibling

Even though siblings pick at each other, they also play together forming inseparable bonds. This isn't always possible for an autistic child who feels bombarded by sensory input and simply cannot play in the same manner. The neuro-typical sibling becomes frustrated and can feel rejected by the autistic child's inability to engage. Simple, normal, everyday sibling interactions such as wrestling matches, secret telling, a combined front against Mom and Dad, imaginative play and quarreling without a war erupting are missed by neuro-typcial siblings.

Fierce Devotion

Despite the challenges of being in a family with an autistic individual, psychologists and social researchers report that the majority of siblings become fiercely devoted, loyal and defensive of their challenged brother or sister. Barbara Cain, a psychologist and autism expert, detailed numerous stories of neuro-typical children, who altered what would have been a more carefree childhood, to accommodate the sensory needs of their autistic sibling, as cited in the Time magazine article entitled, "Autism's Invisible Victims: The Siblings." The article highlighted her non-clinical interviews with siblings of autistic children.

Additional Responsibility Later In Life

The siblings of autistic children quickly surmise that the care of their challenged sibling most likely will fall to them once their parents die or reach an older age at which they physically are unable to do so. This sense of additional responsibility can challenge the ability of neuro-typical siblings to move on into their own adult lives, according to the organization Autism Society. In addition to discussing future plans for their child with autism, parents should encourage their neuro-typical children to develop their own identities apart from being a sibling of someone who has autism.

About the Author

Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.

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