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How to Support Siblings of Kids with Special Needs

It’s a challenge to be a sibling of a child with autism or another disability. Local moms discuss how they support all their kids, not just the one with special needs.

Parents naturally want their children to have healthy, loving relationships with one another. For parents of a child with special needs, there is an added layer of concern about how the disability affects their typically developing children. When so much family life revolves around the child who needs extra attention, it’s not unusual for siblings to feel frustrated and resentful about the situation.

Sibshops sibling support

Sibshops are recreational workshops held throughout the tristate area for brothers and sisters (ages 6-13) of kids with special needs. “At Sibshops, young sibs meet other sibs, have some fun and talk about the good and not-so-good parts of having a sibling with special needs,” says creator Don Meyer, who has trained Sibshops facilitators across the United States as well as in England, Ireland, New Zealand and Japan for more than 30 years. “They put their own experiences into a broader perspective of how other kids experience this sibling issue.”

According to a 2005 research study on Sibshops conducted at the University of Washington, more than 90 percent of participants said Sibshops had a positive effect on the feelings they had for their siblings, and 75 percent said that Sibshops positively affected their adult lives.

Sibling Resources

Sibshops are offered throughout the tristate area, as mentioned in the article. This part of the site, Siblingsupport.org, also gives teenage sibs the opportunity to connect through Facebook or a Yahoo group.

Supersibs.org is for children with a sibling who has cancer.

Special Needs Philly lists support programs for families and siblings of children with special needs.

United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia & Vicinity offers a Sibling Support Group for 6-12-year-old brothers and sisters of kids with a disability.

The ASCEND Group provides an e-mail listserv for families with children on the autism spectrum and conducts workshops throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, including an annual conference.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offers sibling-support advice to parents.

Care.com has a Q&A section about caring for a child with Down syndrome.

The following autism organizations also have sibling-support info:

Autism Delaware

Autism New Jersey

The Philadelphia chapter of the Autism Society of America

The National Autism Resource and Information Center

“I’ve long contended that the biggest beneficiary of Sibshops is not the typically developing kids; it’s the sibling who has the disability,” says Meyer. “If we support, inform, validate and celebrate brothers and sisters as they grow up, we increase the chances they will elect to remain lovingly involved in the lives of their sibling when their parents no longer can.”

How a disability can affect siblings

With a brother and son on the autism spectrum, Maleita Olson, director of social services at Spectra Support Services in Havertown, PA and a trained Sibshops facilitator, knows this terrain well. “I noticed that my son’s autism impacted my daughter’s sense of self because she had a brother who wouldn’t play with her,” Olson says. “It took me a long time to realize that a lot of her issues with being shy and not feeling good about herself were because of those things.”

Olson notes that it is “quite a balancing act” to help her younger three children understand. “When my older son ignores them or doesn’t show an interest, I try to explain why,” she says. “I have learned that it’s important to let them know that they are entitled to how they are feeling.”

Siblings of kids with special needs are not "third parents"

Olson says parents often rely too much on siblings for help: “While siblings may best relate to the child with the disability, there is a danger in making them a third parent. They may have that role as an adult, but it’s good for them to just be kids when they are kids.”

Lori Verlinghieri from Bear, DE says that giving her 6-year-old twins, Jenna and Zoe, the words to describe their 9-year-old brother Jacob, who is physically and mentally disabled, makes their interaction more of a positive experience. “I’ve explained that his brain doesn’t talk to his muscles, so they aren’t grasping for words or terminology,” Verlinghieri explains. “It sounds more ‘scientific’ than having them focus on what their sibling can’t do or what’s ‘wrong’ with him, even at this young age.”

She and her husband do have concerns that the girls might eventually feel resentful toward Jacob. “Asking them to help is OK at this stage, but when he gets older I don’t want them feeling like they are his keepers,” Verlinghieri says. “I want them to grow up appreciating and loving him and not feeling beholden to taking care of him.”

Today, though, Verlinghieri is proud of the genuine support the twins show their brother. “It’s heartwarming when they celebrate Jacob’s accomplishments, regardless of how small,” she says. “Their teachers say they are very empathetic, not just toward Jacob but toward all their classmates. I think having Jacob in our family will have more of a positive impact on the girls over the long run."

Elena Perri is a freelance writer who lives in Havertown, PA.

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