There’s no question that having a brother or sister with special needs creates significant and lifelong challenges for families. April is National Autism Awareness Month and in recognition, this month’s blog highlights the benefits of being the sibling of a child with special needs and how these benefits promote individual resilience. Please note that many of the behaviors mentioned below are general to children with any special need and are not specifically characteristics of children with autism.
It’s an important topic for families, including my own, as I have experienced both the benefits and challenges of raising my first daughter, Katy — who had multiple disabilities and passed away at age 8 — with my second daughter, Denise. I’m incredibly proud that today, Denise is an occupational therapist who works with children with autism. This month, let’s acknowledge and be thankful for three ways that a child with special needs helps their siblings build resilience.
1. Increased compassion
The first benefit of being raised with a special-needs sibling is increased compassion for people with developmental differences. It’s no coincidence that so many professionals in the human services and special education fields, like my daughter Denise, have family members with a disability. Many children with special needs have behaviors that some people find off-putting. They may make unusual sounds, rock back and forth constantly or even repeatedly hurt themselves.
Siblings have a greater understanding of what is behind these behaviors and a greater respect for the efforts that their special-needs brother or sister makes to overcome these challenges. This lack of stigma and a greater ability to see and respect the humanity, dignity and individuality of all children and adults with special needs motivate many of them to pursue careers in the helping professions. I should also add that sometimes they are motivated by anger at the poor services their sibling received and a desire to make sure that other individuals have better and fairer treatment.
2. Greater sense of wonder and joy
A second benefit of sharing your childhood with a special-needs sibling is a greater sense of wonder and joy at the attainment of developmental milestones. This is something that so many of us take for granted. Learning to walk, being able to communicate effectively (whether by speech or other means), even making eye contact with a loved one are complex and wonderful achievements. Brothers and sisters who have helped their sibling for years in mastering these everyday skills do not take these accomplishments for granted. They know how precious and miraculous these achievements are, which adds to their appreciation and enjoyment of all children. Sitting in a park watching children play on swings, throw a ball or play tag has a deeper meaning when you realize that many children struggle to master these everyday tasks.
3. Greater appreciation of life
Lastly, one of the greatest gifts of being part of a special-needs family is a deeper sense of values and greater appreciation of what is truly important in life. Like all children and adolescents, brothers and sisters of siblings with special needs can get caught up in the latest fads and nag their parents to buy them more stuff. But, although it may take many years to develop, they often have a deeper appreciation of what really matters — love, respect, family and the interdependence of us all.
Compassion, gratitude and a clear understanding of one’s values are three characteristics of resilient individuals. So for those of us who are parents of children with special needs, let’s reflect in the month of April on the gifts that our child with a disability provides to all members of our families.
Paul LeBuffe is the Director of the Devereux Center for Resilient Children in Villanova, PA, whose mission is promoting the resilience of all children and the adults who care for them; he contributes to this blog on a monthly basis. More information on promoting resilience can be found at the center’s website.