DR RADICA MAHASE
SANDRA HARRIS, executive director of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University, noted that, “Research indicates that the majority of brothers and sisters of children with autism cope well with their experiences. That does not mean, however, that they do not encounter special challenges in learning how to deal with a sibling who has autism or a related disorder.”
As we come to the end of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to discuss the impact of covid19 on the mental health of autism siblings.
In many families with children with autism, as well as other special needs, the special children are given priority over the other children. Many parents/caregivers become absorbed in attending to the special needs child, not deliberately, it’s just that taking care of a special needs child can be quite demanding. Also, sometimes, parents think that the siblings are "normal" and take for granted that they can and are coping with everything, without realising that they might also be struggling.
In most cases, siblings are an integral part of their special brother/sister’s lives. Once you live in the same space with someone with special needs, you are often called up to make sacrifices, to assist in whatever way and your life is different from those of your friends and peers who are not in the same situation as you.
Covid19 restrictions, especially stay-at-home measures, have serious implications for special needs siblings. In many cases they are called up to be an even bigger support system. Whereas previously, they might have got a break if they are in school or employed, now they are with their sibling for longer time periods. Many younger siblings have to balance classes with taking care of their siblings. If the special child is having a rough day, not feeling well, etc, this can affect the siblings’ attendance at online classes and their schoolwork.
In some families, the siblings might not have a space to work in or get any quiet time for themselves. All these have an impact on their mental health, as it can be mentally exhausting trying to balance everything.
While every sibling’s situation is different, it is important that special needs siblings find healthy ways to cope with the continued changes brought about by covid19. They need to find ways to give themselves some space – from both their studies and their special needs siblings, even if it is a few minutes for the day.
This may entail finding a quiet space or getting some quiet time for a few minutes every day, independent of their special brother/sister. It can be watching a video, listening to music or anything that the sibling likes. The idea is for the sibling to have some time every day just for him or her, without the special needs child, just to breathe, to relax, to de-stress, to think.
If you are a parent of a special needs child, chances are you are more tuned in to the challenges faced by the special needs child than the challenges faced by your other children.
However, it is important that parents should put aside time every day to have a conversation with the sibling to recognise them and their needs.
Rebecca, mother of six years old Alex, who is on the autism spectrum, and his eight-year-old sister, Lexie, noted that she makes the effort also to pay attention to Lexie’s needs.
Rebecca says, “I think it is important that Lexie expresses herself, however she feels, on condition that she cannot be rude. She can tell me how she feels, she can tell me how she thinks I can help her to feel better or feel special, if that is what she needs at a particular point in time.
"Recently she told me that when I get frustrated, that doesn’t help her, it only makes her scared and she cries and then she can’t focus on her work. She said that she needs me to be patient with her. So she is allowed to tell me how I can help her feel good, or not feel stressed.”
As difficult as it may sometimes be, parents need to remember that siblings are also individuals with their own needs, with an important role to play in their special needs siblings' lives, and they too should be given the attention, care and love that they need to be in a good place mentally.
Radica Mahase is the Founder/Director of Support Autism T&T