Dana Fialco collaborated with her sister Tara, who has autism, and their parents to create the “Starabella” three-book audio series. Visit her online at www.starabella.com.
Every sibling relationship is unique, but having an autistic child in a family can impact the entire family dynamic. While much attention is paid to the challenges and difficulties faced by parents and siblings of autistic children, growing up with an autistic sibling also offers many advantages and hidden treasures that can help shape an individual’s life and character. Here are five benefits of growing up with an autistic sibling:
1. Perception. Having an autistic sibling means growing up alongside someone who sees the world in a unique, individual way – a way that is often different from the mainstream population. It also means living day-to-day with someone who behaves somewhat-to-very differently than the general population. The sibling without autism learns very early on that the world we live in is not black and white; there is not necessarily a right and wrong way to do all things. With solid parental guidance, siblings come to learn that individuality is not scary or wrong, but valued and beneficial to society. The neuro-typical siblings go into adult life with open minds and the ability to see the world from many views. Not only does this shape an individual with compassion, empathy, and acceptance of differences, but it also inspires innovation and creativity. The siblings can become real thinkers who see beyond face value, as well as diplomats who can navigate and reconcile conflicting points of view.
2. Perspective. Growing up with an autistic sibling means watching your sibling face each day with more courage and strength than most of us can fathom. Whether facing ridicule and cruelty from others or simply trying to get by in a world that was not built to accommodate their needs and way of thinking, kids with autism experience constant challenges. It’s difficult to witness this on a daily basis and not grow up with great perspective about what actually constitutes a problem. Granted, a pitfall of some siblings is to decide that their own real problems or feelings do not warrant attention or concern. However, with maturity and proper guidance from caring adults, the siblings can grow into adults who can balance experiencing their feelings with not overreacting to trivialities or falling prey to self-pity. This perspective allows them to remain calm during difficult situations, and to be thoughtful rather than reactionary.
3. Leadership. Siblings of autistic children often have to mature very early – arguably, earlier than should be required. By necessity, siblings often must assist their parents in helping, providing care, and teaching. These households can be chaotic, and siblings must develop a real inner strength to deal with the chaos, emotions, and frequent uncertainty. In families, siblings often collaborate – working on projects, carrying out chores, or playing together. Siblings often see each other’s capabilities and way of thinking from a different perspective than their parents or teachers. Whether older or younger, the non-autistic siblings naturally gravitate to leadership roles in the sibling relationship. They learn to stand up for their sibling to others, and advocate for their sibling’s potential to be seen and met with proper challenges for growth and success. Whereas this can present difficulty for some, in the end, it shapes strong adults with tremendous potential for leadership. They can grow into leaders who are comfortable navigating uncertainty and still delivering results; they become comfortable leading and motivating others, and they learn to see and foster the potential in those they lead. They see differences in working styles and ways of thinking as welcome attributes rather than frightening, difficult to manage, or unacceptable. The siblings become strong, compassionate leaders who are natural innovators, protectors, and advocates.
4. Courage. By necessity, growing up with an autistic sibling teaches a child to have the courage to stand out. Venturing into society with someone who does not necessarily conform or can have unfiltered reactions means there will be moments when the entire family stands out, whether they like it or not. For children and teenagers this can sometimes cause embarrassment. However, it is an important part of their development that will yield rewards their entire lives. It helps the siblings learn to be themselves and express their ideas, and not be swayed by the crowd. It helps them see public perception for what it is, and to know when to take or leave an outside judgment or opinion. A lifetime of developing strength and compassion provides the courage and pride to face the world head-on.
5. Creativity. Many of the other listed benefits have underlying tones of creativity, or produce creativity as a byproduct of the other attributes achieved. Siblings often have a unique way of communicating – sometimes even developing a shorthand or symbiotic relationship. Learning to communicate effectively with an autistic sibling takes a great deal of creativity. Autism manifests differently in each person, and there is a broad spectrum. However, communication and social awareness are almost always affected in some way. Siblings grow up learning how to organically communicate, reach, and connect with their sibling. Because those with autism often have unique and varied ways of thinking and seeing the world, their neuro-typical siblings often benefit from a very creative point of view. Simply being so intimately engaged with a person lacking the tools to benefit from a very creative point of view. Simply being so intimately engaged with a person lacking the tools to temper individuality through conformity stretches the mind and creativity of a sibling. Many people with autism also have some extraordinary abilities. Not all are creative, but some do have creative talent, be it visual arts, music, writing, or simply expressing a worldview that is unique and insightful. An added benefit to creativity is when a sibling grows up in a house filled with this art. Even a non-creative interest exposes the siblings to aspects of the world that they would not normally delve into, and can feed creativity. If the siblings happens to share a creative interest, both or all the siblings’ creativity and awareness grows together. Some siblings even apply their creativity to solving scientific and sociological puzzles, including the puzzle of autism.
Of course, all family dynamics and ways of growing up present their own challenges as well as benefits. Siblings of autistic children naturally develop the tools to see the challenges thrown their way in life for the gifts they can be. They develop the strength and creativity to use those gifts towards compassionate, collaborative, individualized success.
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.