Kristi’s Corner — Supporting Siblings

Supporting Siblings

Strategies for parents to build positive sibling relationships between children with and without autism. 

Article review written by: Kristi Hansen

Having a child diagnosed with autism in the family has inevitable effects on parents, siblings and the broader family unit — but whoever said those effects had to be negative? While it is true that having a child with autism increases the recurrence risk for younger siblings to approximately 20% (Warren, et al. 2011), it does not necessarily follow that siblings exhibit more emotional or behavioral problems than the “norm” (Dempsey, et al. 2011). In fact, Dempsey et al.’s (2011) study found that typically developing siblings of children who have autism were actually reported to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems, suggesting resiliency and a strong ability to adapt. While this may be the case for many siblings groups in the families we serve, it is essential to provide as much support to siblings as possible for the benefit of the client and the family as a whole.

Drawing primarily from Tsao, Davenport & Schimiege (2011), here are some practical strategies to help support siblings:

1. Foster open communication
  • Past studies have revealed that siblings of children who have autism have reported perceptions of parental favoritism toward the child with autism, and feelings of jealousy and rejection (McHale & Gamble, 1986). Begin an open dialogue with siblings and invite them to share honestly with you about their feelings toward their brother or sister who has autism.
  • Resist any urge to explain away false perceptions. First, acknowledge the sibling’s emotions and perceptions of differential treatment.
  • It can be helpful to provide age appropriate explanations of what autism is, and why a brother or sister may require extra attention and support. Sesame Street and Autism Speaks provide helpful resources for beginning these conversations.
  • Consider any additional demands or burdens that are placed on siblings as a result of having a brother or sister with autism. Are parents asking siblings to complete extra chores or take on caretaker responsibilities?
2. Build a strong support system
  • It has been reported that parents of children with autism have higher rates of stress and depression
  • When parents can find support that helps to alleviate this stress, they may become more available to better support each child as an individual
  • Parent-to-parent and family unit support groups are available to help parents to feel encouraged and known and to provide a platform to share. Check your local Facebook and online blog communities to find groups in your area.
3. Parent training
  • Parents can help to foster a positive sibling relationship between their children by learning how to reinforce positive interactions
  • Ask for specific training from your BCBAs if this is an area of interest for you
4. Sibling play intervention
  • Siblings can be powerful agents of behavior change for their brother or sister with autism
  • Bass & Mulick (2007) conducted a study that underlined the significance of the role of the sibling. It is not enough for siblings to play in close physical proximity to one another, the real benefit comes from engaging in cooperative, interactive play

Kristi Hansen, Author & RBT

“Through ongoing interactions, siblings with the social skills to appropriately respond to the needs of their brother or sister with a disability can develop high quality sibling relationships.” (Tsao, Davenport & Schimiege 2011, p. 51)

  • It is often an exciting thing for a sibling to discover the positive impact they can have. This helps to boost the sibling’s self-esteem and to bond the children together.
  • It is important that the sibling is motivated to engage in play and wants to help. Sibling-implemented intervention cannot be coerced.
5. Sibling support groups
  • Encourage siblings to get to know other children who can relate to their unique experiences. Similar to parents, it is important for siblings to feel known and understood and receive the support and encouragement they need.
6. Individualize the children
  • Spend one-on-one time with each child. As important as it is to have time together as family and for siblings to learn to play together, it is also important that the children have healthy doses of time apart.

Parent & Sibling Support Groups:



Bass, J. D. & Mulick, J. A. (2007). Social play skill enhancement of children with autism using peers and siblings as therapists. Psychology in the Schools, 44: 727–735

Dempsey, A. G., Llorens, A., Brewton, C., Mulchandani, S., & Goin-Kochel, R. P. (2011). Emotional and behavior adjustment in typically developing siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42(7), 1393-1402.

McHale, S. M., & Gamble, W. C. (1989). Sibling relationships of children with disables and nondisabled brothers and sisters. Developmental Psychology, 25, 421-429.

Tsao, L., Davenport, R., & Schmiege C. (2011). Supporting siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders. Early Childhood Education Journal 40, 47-54. 

Warren, Z. E., Foss-Feig, J. H., Malesa, E. E., Lee, E. B., Taylor, J. L., Newsom, C. R., Crittendon, J., & Stone, W. L. (2011). Neurocognitive and behavioral outcomes of younger siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder at age five. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(3), 409-418.


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