The impact on younger children of a sibling with autism

Hi. I am an architect and mother of three children. My firm is passionate for designing environments for children and adults with special needs. This is my heart.

Our oldest child (Matt, 18) is autistic. I was having a conversation the other day with a client and recognized that the behavioral things she was stating about her 18 year old son were identical to the behaviors we were experiencing from our 13 year old. I had always realized that the stress and violence that my son had seen from his older ASD brother would have an impact on him but I had not realized that it had significantly aged him. This now has made my perspective change. I feel guilt for my son's loss of some of his "childhood" years. I also feel proud for his maturity though it can be misunderstood in his young body. I know he will become a great contributor to his brother's life.

If there is a lesson I can reflect on, it would be that parents learn faster than I did to walk away from the explosive events of your ASD child. I eventually found that our presence fueled his event and when his audience was eliminated, he had no choice but to learn how to stop. So, I got to the place where if he started a "fit", as I called them, I would make some statement like "you look tired" and turn off the lights and close the door, or I would say "you can do this alone, I'm leaving". If he full on body dropped (which he did often even at his 165 lbs.), I would say "that looks comfortable, good night" and turn off the lights and leave. Once when he was about 16, he body dropped in the fenced backyard, banged his head several times and then played dead. I left him laying there and we all (including company) moved into the house. He laid there for about an hour as his eyes darted around to see where everybody went.

I always made sure he was in a safe place but in taking away his "helper" or aid, he had to develop the skills to get it on his own.

So true

Hi Cathy -

Very insightful and helpful. We have a similar situation in our house.

My younger son, Ian, will sometimes have a "fit" that is legitimate (and by legitimate I mean there is an underlying biomedical or sensory issue that is causing the distress), but at other times the fit is much like any neurotypical child acting out.

The difficulty for parents is discerning between the two. It took me years to distinguish between the 2 and another extended period of time to act on it.

Now, when Ian has a fit I do much as you do. I tell him he’s alright, but no longer attempt to engage him and divert his attention. It only served to lengthen the fit. By ignoring the unruly behaviors Ian is back to his charming self in no time and each disorderly cycle is diminishing.