How I Help My Kids Bond With Their Sister Who Has Autism

The rules and beliefs I live by.

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 
Three little girls who are sisters, two of them getting along with the one who is autistic
Thomas Barwick/Getty

I’m the weirdo mom with two sets of twins (yes, really). My older set is 7 years old, and my younger set is 4 years old. And while one of my 4-year-olds talks and plays appropriately, my other daughter doesn’t. She was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder a few weeks before her third birthday, and besides saying a few words here and there, she is primarily nonverbal.

In the little over a year that she’s been in therapies, she’s made tremendous strides of improvement in all areas, and we couldn’t be more proud of her. Still, she doesn’t engage with her siblings in the way her twin sister does. And make no mistake, that can be hard on everyone — especially her siblings, who don’t understand why she doesn’t seem all that interested in them.

It’s not unusual for my other children to become jealous over how much time I spend with my autistic daughter, either, and I’d say that’s understandable and expected. They’ll say things like, “Why does she always get more attention?” or “How come she doesn’t have to eat what everyone else is eating?”

Those aren’t the most challenging questions for me, though. The toughest ones tend to be something along the lines of, “Why doesn’t she like me?”

Those questions cut deep because that’s not the case at all. Thankfully, I’ve found six invaluable ways to help my kids bond with their sister who has autism.

1. I acknowledge their feelings.

When their sister has a different dinner plate from the rest of the family, and someone feels upset about it, I validate those emotions. Approaching this situation would go something like this: “You’re disappointed that we’re eating hamburgers for dinner, I know. You see your sister with leftover pancakes that you wanted, and that must feel really unfair. I’m sorry that you’re feeling that way.”

Then, I move on towards the “why:” “Your sister won’t eat anything else for dinner right now. And just like it’s my job to make sure you eat, it’s my job to make sure she eats, too. Sometimes that means she gets a different plate.”

If it still feels unfair to them after all that, I let them know that that’s okay, too.

2. I help them better understand autism.

Kids can’t grasp why their sibling with autism has unique needs if they don’t understand what autism is. And since they are kids, in our household, we keep the terminology relatively simple. I tell them that their sister is different and perceives the world around her more sensitively than others. Through books and TV shows (like our beloved Sesame Street) that are inclusive to children with autism, I’ve helped my kids gain a little more understanding of their sister’s disorder.

3. I model behaviors I want my kids to display.

Our daughter with ASD sometimes regulates her emotions by screaming when she’s feeling out of control. Unfortunately, this reaction can cause my other kids (and me) to grow overstimulated alongside her. So instead of getting worked up and adding fuel to the fire, I calmly help her find ways to self-regulate.

It’s funny how many times I’ve caught my kids engaging in regulation techniques I model with their sister, like deep “squeezes,” gently scratching her arms and legs, or using a therapeutic brush against her skin. Not only does this teach them empathy towards those with different needs, it also validates that our home is a safe space to feel emotions for my daughter with autism.

4. We engage in group play as a family.

Group play offers my husband and me the opportunity to teach our kids new ways to play with our autistic daughter in a way everyone finds fun, too. Like many ASD kiddos, she loves any sensory-related play, so we alternate out of multiple sensory bins each day with the kids. And honestly, who doesn’t love playing with sand, slimy textures, or play-doh? Even I like doing these activities.

Sometimes we roughhouse together, do arts and crafts, or are just downright silly with one another. But, whatever we are doing, when we are doing it together, it helps our kids grow closer.

5. I let them know her triggers, and why she may not be as sensitive to their own.

Even though my daughter typically doesn’t respond well to others inserting themselves in her personal space, sometimes she forgets that others have personal space boundaries, too. We correct this behavior when necessary, and we have seen growth from her, but that doesn’t make it any easier on our kids when they aren’t in the mood to be touched or aren’t as tolerant of loud noises at the moment.

In such instances, we would also take the time to validate our kids’ feelings, help them understand why their sister might be behaving the way she is, and de-escalate the situation if needed.

7. I set quality time aside for each of them.

Before I had kids, I thought they would get an equal amount of time with me. It wasn’t until I was a mom that I realized how flawed that sentiment is, whether your child has special needs or not.

I give my time according to my kids’ needs, and sometimes, it’s not spread out equally. Most days, my daughter with autism gets the most time with her dad and me throughout the day. We take her to her therapies, spend extra time figuring out what she is trying to communicate, and pour our energy into helping her reach goals. And I refuse to let myself feel guilty about this.

Because although she may require more of my time, I can still give that to her without placing my other kids on the back burner. One of the ways I do that is by setting time aside each day to make sure that they feel loved and special. And on those days where my other children need more to me than usual, I give that time to them, too.

Ensuring that all my kids have enough one-on-one time with their dad and me is essential to maintaining healthy relationships between siblings in our household.

7. I don’t expect neurotypical behaviors from my autistic child anymore.

On Halloween, one of my daughters told me she wasn’t excited about trick-or-treating because she said her sister would start screaming and we’d have to leave early. And she wasn’t wrong. Her sister’s costume did throw her off, and she wasn’t a fan of going door to door. After two houses, she made it clear that it was time to go home.

Instead of trick-or-treating with the thought being, “We’re a family, we go together because it’s all or nothing,” I made arrangements for my mom to come with us. That way, she could take our daughter home if she became overstimulated while our other kids continued the festivities.

We can’t trick-or-treat, attend derbies, or go to carnivals as a whole family right now without making our daughter with autism miserable. And that’s okay. We will always try to include her. But, at the same time, I don’t let myself believe that we are causing her to “miss out” on life experiences when those experiences bring her agony.

On the other hand, our other children deserve those life experiences that their sister can’t handle. So sometimes, that means finding something else that’s fun for their sister to do while we take the other kids out. What makes my daughter with autism happy might not be what one would generally expect from a child, but she deserves happiness, too, in whatever form it presents itself.

There are many different kinds of neurodivergence going on in our household, so why would I ever expect anything relatively close to “normal”? Normal is overrated anyway. I’ve had to let go of the narrative inside my head about what a typical, happy family looks like and see our happy family for who we are — and our children’s relationships with each other are better for it.

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