[Excerpted from Siblings of Children With Autism: A Guide for Families by Sandra L. Harris, Ph.D., and Beth A. Glasberg, Ph.D.; copyright © 2012 by Sandra L. Harris and Beth A. Glasberg; published by Woodbine House. Reprinted with permission.]
Younger children have a strong need to feel safe. Because individuals with ASD may exhibit self-destructive or aggressive behaviors, young siblings may observe behaviors that are scary and possibly dangerous on a daily basis. Even stereotypic behaviors, like rocking or flapping, can be confusing or unsettling to a young observer. In fact, these behaviors can be a source of distress for the entire family. Very young children, in particular, may observe their parents' distress and have an emotional response to it, before they are able to articulate their questions and concerns.
Depending on the nature of the challenging behaviors, older siblings may also need some reassurance for their safety. Unfortunately, stories that involve injury or bodily harm, even to parents, are not that rare. The anxiety some children may feel for their safety may sadly be a valid concern. For this reason, and the strain of straddling the role between parent and sibling, we recommend that siblings are not asked to manage disruptive behaviors, not even older siblings. Siblings may provide positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors, or deliver mild discipline such as saying "no," but most siblings will be neither emotionally nor physically prepared to use stronger procedures such as restraint, or even removal of a reinforcer if a physical altercation is probable. While a teen may be left in charge of a very young sibling or an older sibling who does not engage in aggressive or self-injurious behaviors, a teen should never be left in charge of an older or larger sibling who might place both children in danger.
In these situations, wordy explanations will be unlikely to be effective. However, concrete intervention and simple words may help. For example, if your son is frightened by his sister's tantrums, he must be comforted and reassured. He also must be given a safety plan. Maybe your son can be taught to go get mom and leave the room if his sister exhibits certain early signs of agitation? Maybe he can go to his bedroom and close the door until you tell him it is safe to come out? The most important part is that he knows what to do in the situation and feels confident that he can keep himself safe, and that his parents will keep him safe.
A child will also need to know that his brother or sister is safe. Keep in mind that watching the consequences for behavior problems can be frightening as well. For example, although a proper restraint will not hurt a child engaged in a challenging behavior, it might look very scary to a young onlooker. It will be important to let the child know that it doesn't hurt. At another time, it might even be helpful to offer to place the typically developing sibling in the specific hold to demonstrate what the child with ASD is experiencing.
Even the child on the spectrum who may be engaging in unsafe behaviors may need a reminder that you will keep him safe. At times, individuals with ASD engage in challenging behaviors impulsively, or during a period in which they feel that they have lost control. The parent will want to discuss safety measures, even with the child causing the dangerous situation. This may calm his anxiety, and may ultimately help prevent the behavior all together.