One of the most pressing challenges for parents with an autistic child is making sure other children, especially if they are not on the spectrum, do not feel excluded. Parents have to put a lot of energy into navigating care, conversations, and resources for special needs children. Any sibling in the picture can feel like they do not get the same level of care from their families.
Caring for a sibling is a delicate balancing act, especially in our home. We have two children. Our oldest, Noah, is 9, and our youngest, Tad, is 2. One is on the spectrum, while the other appears to be developing without signs of autism. We feel the pressure of our lives wrapped around Noah’s needs and making sure things are secure for him. At this point, with the youngest still a toddler, their needs are similar. In time, they will not be. We recognize the balancing act that exists to make sure they have what they need to survive, thrive, and grow as individuals.
For the church and society at large, there is a tendency to focus more attention on the neurologically typical child than the one with signs of autism. The child may communicate better and adjust to activities in expected ways.
Both church and society often question parents who may have a second child after the first child was diagnosed with autism for bringing another child into the world. Early in my wife’s pregnancy with our youngest, I remember our first doctor all but encouraging abortion. My wife quickly found another doctor who was more supportive and caring. I also remember the whispers of church members after our youngest was born asking if I thought he would be autistic.
The best way to care for a sibling is to love them for who they are. Avoid looking at the child with pity because of the challenges they may face in having an autistic sibling. For one, they will see that sibling as their sibling and not see them as a label. When we look at a person with pity simply for having an autistic sibling, it devalues their own experience and prevents them from being seen as who they are and their perspectives on life.
Be that church grandparent for them. It is also important to be that church grandparent for any child. Be the one who the child remembers that they could sneak a piece of candy from in the pew. Be the one who the child remembers for the smile or word of encouragement. Do not be afraid to engage, but be present in that child’s life.
Let that sibling, as well, be who they are. Do not define them by their family or sibling. They are their own person with unique interests and gifts. Tad loves things that Noah does not. They are two different people and must be treated and loved as such.
We can do well, as a church and society, by treating every person for who they are and not what we perceive them to be. Doing this for siblings of autistic individuals can make a difference in encouraging them to be the people God calls them to be in life.