Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Strange Case of Autism Siblings

I was speaking to several parents at the conference on Friday and one thing particularly struck me.  When we talked about the siblings of our children with autism, they didn't present as the typical younger or older sibling.

In my case, both my children have autism but Alex is much more severe.  His needs tend to dictate a great deal of our lives.  However, Dave and I have done our best to make sure that Nathan gets time without the pressure of his brother's restrictions and that when we are with him, he gets our full attention.  Often I've watched as Nathan's desires and feelings get shunted aside, ignored or not even considered in the rush to focus on Alex.  It's one of the fastest ways to get my blood boiling.

In many ways, Nathan is the "big" brother.  He's venturing into areas Alex may never touch, like spontaneous playdates, walking home by himself and doing independent work.  Unlike most younger siblings who get to benefit from the parents' trial runs with the older children, we're learning with him.  I've noticed a strong streak of perfectionism, a drive to achieve and caution and fear about getting things wrong, all of which are typical of oldest children.  He's also unusually reliable for his age group.  He worries about things constantly, seeking to control and direct.  He needs to know what's happening or else it will prey on his mind, especially when it comes to his brother.

But he also has the clowning, attention-getting characteristics of younger siblings.  He's had to compete with the ultimate attention-hog and it has driven him to believe he has to be entertaining in order to be worthy of attention.  (This is something I'm trying to discourage, to help him believe he is worthy just because he is Nathan.)

I've heard similar stories from other parents.  Their neurotypical or less-autistic children simultaneously become caretakers and clowns.  In some ways, they must take on the role of the oldest, while, in reality, still being younger.  Those who are both biologically and developmentally the oldest children seem to be unusually sober and responsible (based on my limited anecdotal survey).  They have been forced to grow up even more quickly than eldest children typically must.

There are support groups for siblings of children with autism, although they seem to be mostly for teenagers and adults.  When Nathan is older, I don't know if he'll want to participate, but it's reassuring to me to know that there is at least an option of connecting with people who will be able to understand his unique circumstances.

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