Siblings have such a unique, special bond. Some days they will despise each other and the next day, your heart will melt at the sweet things they do together.

Childhood development includes bumpy roads trying to make sense of those emotions. When one of the siblings has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, all of these big emotions that can arise in daily situations are intensified.

While raising children, one neurotypical and the other with autism, it is especially important to place emphasis on building and maintaining a healthy relationship between siblings.

Here are three practical tips to help your children build strong relationships that will last for years to come:

1. Attention and Apologies

Provide one-on-one time with each sibling whenever possible. This can be a special outing or playing with toys in their bedroom. Children with autism can demonstrate behavior problems and their neurotypical siblings may not understand why this requires so much of their parent’s time.

It is easy to assume the neurotypical sibling is “fine,” however, they do understand that the parents devote a lot of time to their sibling. A simple apology for the loss of attention can go a long way.

Scenario: Mom is playing Candy Land with neurotypical child Sally and suddenly sees Billy, who has autism, has climbed to the top of the entertainment center. Mom has to quickly stop playing with Sally to assist Billy. Once mom is able to return, she can simply tell Sally, “I am sorry that I had to leave you for a minute. I’m having fun with you; let’s keep playing!”

2. Monkey See, Monkey Do!

Intentionally model the behavior you’d like your children to display. For example, if you want your children to say “please” and “thank you,” use that language with them when they do something for you. Use words of affirmation and encouragement freely and consistently with all family members.

Scenario: A parent can say to Molly (neurotypical sibling), “Molly, Sam is such a great builder! Let’s give him a high-five for doing a great job building his sandcastle!” Mom and Molly together can say, “Sam we love your sandcastle!” It’s encouraging and heartwarming to see your children use encouraging words to compliment one another.

3. Consistent Behavior Expectations

To help strengthen sibling relationships, and prevent any potential resentment, each child must have fair and consistent expectations for their actions.

Scenario: Five-year-old Joey pours a box of crackers on the floor. You reprimand him and make him pick it up. Three-year-old Tommy, who has autism, imitates Joey and pours the same box of crackers on the floor five minutes later.

Both boys need to clean up their mess. Tommy, however, will most likely require assistance. If Tommy did not have to clean up, Joey would not understand, which could potentially cause resentment towards Tommy and weaken their relationship over time.


Jenny Northern and Mary Garlington are board certified behavior analysts at Pediatrics Plus.

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