Q: I was heartbroken today when my NT (neurotypical) son told me that he didn’t want to be in our family anymore because he doesn’t matter. He always has to take a second seat to our son with autism because, honestly, he just doesn’t need as much help. I feel like an awful mom because he is struggling in a different way. What can I do to support both my kids?
Typical siblings of special need kids have a psychology all their own. I know because I am one of them. I have 3 siblings, we are all adopted. All 3 of them had varying degrees of physical or learning challenges. I was the only one who did not have obvious difficulties. I often felt unloved, left out and that my parents didn’t care about me. When I was about 15, I was having a fight with my mom and I told her this. She got really quiet and then said, “It’s because I don’t worry about you. I know you are going to grow up and be just fine.” It was a real learning moment for me. I didn’t feel so bad anymore because she was right. I didn’t need her help, even though I wanted it.
Things you can do to help NT siblings:
One-on-One Time: As a mom of one who had severe issues, and one who is pretty much NT, I am very aware of the feelings of my NT child. My NT boy and I talk about it frequently. It’s important he realize he is just as important, but in a different way. My husband and I make a point of spending one-on-one time with our NT kid so he knows we love him just as much. It’s really important to schedule this time in your calendar so it doesn’t just happen haphazardly. Remind you child throughout the week that you have alone time coming up.
Explain why your special kid needs extra attention: It’s really crucial that you also share why so much of your attention is on the other child. They need to understand that it’s not about loving one more than the other, but about helping the sibling so they can have a fulfilling life.
Honor your NT child’s emotions: Your NT child will probably be angry or maybe even feel sad about his/her sibling. Allow your child to express these emotions. Talk about it, and show your child it is okay to have these strong feelings. We all know that emotions unexpressed can build up and come out at unexpected moments, so it’s really important to teach your children early that it’s okay to let it out.
Find way that your NT child can support your special child: I’m not saying your NT child should be responsible for therapies or things of that nature, but in the course of sibling relationships, how can your NT child help? For example, our NT son has been a huge source of social interaction for his brother, and we remind him all the time how playing with his brother helps him. Also, showing understand when your special child acts out is a big boy way to handle the situation. We acknowledge when our NT son is quiet and off to the side so we could calm the situation down.
Your NT child has learned how to support his/her sibling, so acknowledge that and let your NT kid know that he/she is part of the solution. This will help him/her to feel important and realize the whole family helps your special kid, not just mom and dad.