How siblings help my son with autism thrive the most

One boy looking on as another kid hangs on to a swing with arms with autumn leaves on the ground

By Marya Markovich

“Aim for the elbow! Aim for the elbow!”

From the next room, I heard my tween-aged daughter shouting this at someone. The elbow is not usually a body part you invite someone to hit, so I poked my head in, curious.

Lola was teaching her older brother Thomas, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), how to do a non-awkward high-five. “You have to use the other hand from the one I’m using, and aim for my elbow.”

Those instructions did the trick. I witnessed a perfectly executed high-five.

Is there any better teacher of life for a kid on the spectrum than a sibling? Would an adult professional have thought of teaching this simple ritual of human bonding?

Thomas lives with two “free” therapists that are with him 24/7—Lola and Cedric, both younger than he is by a few years.

Now I’m not saying the relationship between Thomas and his sibs is all smiley faces and hearts. It’s a normal sibling dynamic, which means it includes squabbling, insults, and annoying the living daylights out of each other.

But the key word is “normal.” Normal is often hard to come by for a kid with ASD, especially when it concerns relationships.

Children on the spectrum get a disproportionately large amount of attention from the grown-ups in their lives: from parents to academic tutors to occupational therapists. Thomas, like many kids with ASD, finds interacting with these adults far easier than with other kids. Adults are skilled enough to adapt to his quirks, or polite enough to overlook them. Moreover, they don’t have to build an actual friendship with Thomas. They can indulge him, at no social or emotional cost to themselves. His peers, however, demand more.

How to get along with peers, however, is not something that adults are particularly well-suited to teach. Over the years, Thomas has attended numerous social skills groups. He has been on the receiving end of tip after tip from smart, well-meaning adults on how to handle the social situations that come up in the classroom or on the playground. He has participated in more than his fair share of choreographed role-plays with other kids, including neurotypical “peer mentors.”

But what happens in these groups generally stays in the groups. Thomas rarely applies the recommended techniques to real-world situations. In real life, he is more anxious than in the controlled setting—and other kids are less predictable. What Thomas needs most is practice interacting with other humans his age in a natural environment—but with a safety net.

Enter his siblings.

Siblings go where adults can’t. For starters, brothers and sisters tell it like it is. When Thomas was obsessed with fart humor well past the usual age, the adults in his life tried to ignore his constant references to flatulence, in the hopes that he would eventually stop. But his brother Cedric said, “Ugh, Thomas, no one says that in high school, that is so cringe-y.” Kids with ASD tend to be pretty literal, and straight-talk is the native language of siblings everywhere.

Siblings provide acceptance. Thomas, who is high-functioning and attends classes with neurotypical kids, is undeniably considered one of the weird kids at school. Even his nicest classmates tend to give him a wide berth. He goes through his school days largely ignored, hovering on the margins. So when he is at home, and a confident, fun girl who happens to be his sister Lola creeps up from behind him, stands on his legs as he sits cross-legged, and pounds playfully on his head, it’s a validation of sorts. Lola shows no fear, no distance. He is worthy of being goofed around with.

Siblings are cultural ambassadors. Neurotypical kids like Thomas’s siblings understand the rules and contours of their social world better than parents do. Lola and Cedric are Thomas’s sherpas through the harsh terrain of adolescent social life. The other evening, I watched Lola and Thomas huddled over a group text on Thomas’s phone, while Lola ghost-wrote. “Look, this is what you have to say,” she said, showing him how to ask something in a non-awkward way. Cedric has lots of close friends and fills Thomas in on all the gossip he would not otherwise hear.

Being alone together. Kids like Thomas often like to do their own thing. Contrary to popular belief, this does not make them loners. They still thrive on social contact, only at a less in-your-face level. Having siblings allows Thomas to be alone in the company of others. Sometimes the kids are all up in their bedrooms together, engaged in parallel pursuits. Other times Lola’s and Cedric’s friends are at our house, eating dinner with us, or piling in our minivan to go see a movie. On these occasions, Thomas becomes part of a gang of kids, by default.

For parents of neurodiverse kids, the future can feel like driving into an unknown land with no map. While most of us know many children on the spectrum, we see few examples of grown people with ASD navigating daily life. So I have no idea what Thomas’s life will someday be like.

But I take comfort in the fact that Lola and Cedric will be there to help him figure things out, even if it’s from afar. They may not do it perfectly. And the three of them will likely grow frustrated with each other from time to time—they’re siblings, after all. But there will be someone who will offer him love and matter-of-fact acceptance. To guide him through the bewildering and ever-changing world of human society, including the parts that most people take for granted.

Like how to do a high-five.

Marya Markovich is a mother of three tweens/teens. She is a health researcher by day, school volunteer by night, and writer in the very early morning.

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