By Karen Kaplan
This morning I decided to write down everything my brother means to me and wondered how brothers and sisters on the autism spectrum or those similar social differences learn about their siblings. How do they work on their relationship? Do they know who each other is? Do they know how each other might feel? Do they know one another's interests, fears, dreams, or hopes?
Perhaps the new year can be an opportunity for families to help siblings with special needs learn about their brothers and sisters and vice versa. Here are some top ways families can connect:
Help them make a photo scrapbook all about their brother or sister.
Start with a baby picture and help them know the day and year their sibling was born. This primes them for birthday celebrations and it may help them understand the age of their sibling. Make a card together.
Find pictures of their brother or sister engaging in activities they really enjoy and tell them about those activities they like.
Maybe their brother or sister is part of a sports team. Show them pictures of that sport, talk about it, and tell them how brothers and sisters go to games their brother or sister plays.
Share some of their sibling's toys, books, art projects, or work from school.
If the sibling no longer lives with them, get a photo of their home or apartment and some pictures of the town or city they work and play in.
If their sibling is married, put wedding pictures in the scrapbook and talk about the person they married. If they have children, then talking about cousins can occur.
If their brother or sister lives away, teach them to Facetime, text, or email them once a month. This shows them that family stays connected. In addition, this could open conversation teaching and open question practice and sharing daily life activities.
Using pictures of their siblings engaging in new and novel activities could help the brother or sister on the autism spectrum see that it is okay to try something new. In addition, neurotypical siblings can model activities for a sibling on the spectrum.
When parents encourage brothers and sisters to share and help around the house together, they are helping the youngster on the spectrum to connect to others in their community or work with others in school or the community.
It is also important for the typical sibling to understand who their brother or sister is. Helping them to understand their diagnosis is a beginning. Perhaps they might read or watch a film about autism and other exceptional needs.
Try discussing their sibling's anxieties and sensitivities as well as sensory issues, communication challenges, and social understanding with them. Talk to them about joining a sibling group.
Here are tool kits and books to consider:
Karen Kaplan is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor's and master's degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in Speech Pathology and Audiology. She minored in Special Education and obtained her Speech Therapist and Special Education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for both public schools and private schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism spectrum disorders. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 additional years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges. Karan founded a small non-profit, Offerings, which travels globally helping other cultures understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an Autism Awesomeness event yearly, showcasing the strengths and talents of those who live on the spectrum. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. She has published articles to help bring ideas and strategies to families and professionals, providing hope. Karen authored Reach Me Teach Me in the early 70s and went on to publish her second book, On the Yellow Brick Road Finding Hope for Autism, in 2017. Her third book, Typing to Heaven and Back, is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love. Be sure to connect with Karen—she is always ready to listen and think of the possibilities.