How to Help a Developmentally Disabled Sibling
When you find out that your sibling is developmentally disabled, you may be wondering what to do. What does your sibling need? How can you be a good helper, without getting over your head? Here are some tips to help your sibling learn, grow, and be loved.
Please note: This article uses both person-first and identity-first language. This is because most Autistic people prefer identity-first language (Autistic person, not person with autism), while most other people with developmental disabilities prefer person-first language (e.g. "person with Down Syndrome"). This article is intended to honor both preferences.
Being Their Friend
The best way you can help your sibling is by loving them and spending time together.
Spend time playing with your sibling.Chances are, your sibling may be interested in stereotypically "younger" pastimes, so interaction will be easy and relaxing. Find a pastime that the two of you both like, and engage in it. This might be...
- Playing dolls
- Watching cartoons
- Driving toy cars on the furniture
- Board games or games on phones
Tell them that you like them.Life can be hard for kids with developmental disabilities. It helps to know that there is someone on their side at home. Here are some little ways to let them know you care:
- Praise them for being nice and working hard. Tell them you're proud of them.
- Give them little gifts—a candy bar, a drawing, or a handmade toy book for your dolls to read
- Spend time hanging out.
Don't hesitate to get silly!Many kids love silly humor, and won't judge you for whatever you do. Put your pants on your head! Spin in circles! Use funny voices! They'll giggle right along with you.
Listen to them and validate their feelings.Acknowledge that it's okay to feel the way that they feel, no matter what that is.
- If they say that something is difficult or painful, take their word for it, even if it's fine for you.
- Practice statements such as "I'm sorry to hear that" and "I see."
Love them for who they are.Sometimes family members fall into the trap of "I would love my sister if she just didn't have autism" or "I'll be happy once my brother learns to use complete sentences." Don't let these thoughts consume you. Love themnow,and be happynow.Accept your sibling for who they are, let them grow in their own time, and focus on what matters most: your relationship.
You may want to be extra helpful by teaching your sibling some skills. This is by no means required of you, but you may find it nice to help them out, and see them learning new things because of you.
Read stories together.You may read to them, or they may want to read to you. Choose books that are appropriate for their reading level.
- See if there are any books about your favorite movie characters. For example, if your brother lovesFrozen,try finding picture books about Princess Anna and Queen Elsa.
- Try picking books that teach life lessons, such asThe Berenstain Bears.Many children's books teach stories that range from handling bullies to understanding diversity.
Model good social skills.Every kid needs to learn social skills, and siblings are one of their teachers. Teach them about good manners, and use them yourself. When they see you doing something, eventually they'll pick it up from you.
- Practice asking questions about others. "I had a good day. Would you like to tell me about yours?"
- Model how to deal with feelings. "I'm feeling frustrated, so I want to go to my room to be alone. Please let me be."
Try teaching skills through playtime.This works best if you are using dolls, or some other sort of social interaction toy. Have the dolls model good and bad choices. For example, when it's bedtime, have the child dolls pick up their toys before putting on their pajamas. Then have the parent doll(s) praise them for putting away their toys. Your sibling will think that maybe they should do the same thing.
Discuss how people act in books and movies.Many kids' shows will teach social lessons, but you can enhance this power by asking questions and making comments. Here are some examples of ways to encourage social skills development:
- "How do you think he felt about that?"
- "Is that a good idea? No, it's not? Whatisa good idea for her to do?"
- "Wow, he's not being a very good listener to her, is he? She's trying to tell him something important, and he won't listen!"
Gently explain if they do something wrong.Assume that they didn't know that their actions were inappropriate, or that they didn't understand what to do.Listento find out why they did it,explain whyit was a bad choice, and help themfind a better choice.
- For example "No, you can't walk around in your underwear when we have guests over. It's not polite. I understand you're hot, so we can turn up the air conditioning and I'll get you some ice water. Does that sound good?"
- If you don't think you can explain it well, that's okay. Ask an adult to explain.
Teach them self love.Many disabled children get ostracized or bullied. Practicing unconditional love will help them view themselves the same way.
- Compliment them."You're so sweet!" or "I'm proud of you for being such a hard worker!"
- Celebrate their good traits.Maybe your autistic sister can't talk, but she can write computer code. Complimenting her coding skills will help balance out all the negative attention on her being nonverbal.
- Don't let disability become a bad word.Treat disability like a natural part of the human experience, just like your peanut allergy or love of punk rock.
- Love yourself.Tell yourself that you're awesome until you believe it. Your sibling will copy you.
Keep it fun, and don't overdo it.Remember, you're the child's sibling, not their teacher—and spending your free time on teaching will be exhausting to both you and your sibling. Teach them as you go, but keep it light, and let the parents/caregivers deal with the heavy stuff. Let your relationship be based on fun, and let the life lessons be extra.
Expect to learn from your sibling too.Children with disabilities are all unique individuals who have something special to give to the world. Listen to your sibling and learn to see things from their perspective. They may just change your life.
Like with all siblings, things get rough sometimes. It's important to take good care of yourself, so you can be the best you can be.
Don't expect perfection.It's natural to be upset with your siblings sometimes, and a disability doesn't change that. You will get mad at your sibling, and sometimes you will treat them less-than-perfectly. This doesn't make you a terrible person.
- If you feel bad about something, apologize to your sibling, and make it up to them. Then let it go. You did your best, and that's what counts.
- If you have any longstanding issues between you and your sibling, tell a parent or trusted adult. They can help you work it out.
Don't feel like you need to be constantly available.You have boundaries too, and you should be able to have alone time when you want it. If you don't want to hang out right now, tell them.
- "I'm tired, and I'd like some quiet time right now, okay?"
- "I don't feel like playing right now, but I'd be okay with watching cartoons with you if you wanted."
- Besides, learning how to set boundaries is an important life skill—when your sibling sees you doing it, they will learn it from you!
Communicate any concerns with your parents.You are not your sibling's caregiver, and you are not responsible for solving their problems. If any of the following happens, ask an adult for help.
- A meltdown or outburst
- You suspect your sibling is being bullied
- Your sibling won't respect your boundaries (e.g. refusing to leave you alone)
- Your sibling is afraid of therapy (Some disabled children are hurt by their therapists without the parents knowing.)
- Your sibling is upset and you don't know how to handle it
Tell your parents if you feel left out.With all the fuss about therapies, special ed, and other things related to your sibling's disability, you might feel that your parent(s) have forgotten about you. You deserve attention, and they probably didn't realize you felt ignored. Calmly take them aside and explain how you feel.
- Avoid laying blame. This is not your sibling's fault, and your parent(s) probably didn't realize you felt this way.
- It is not needy or selfish to tell your parents about how you're feeling. Don't keep frustration locked away.
- Ask if they could set aside a certain time to be with you. (For example, every Sunday morning, bead bracelets with your mom.) A concrete solution will help fix it.
Focus on loving your sibling.Don't let your thoughts about disability, or the bad days, define your relationship with your sibling. Have fun, laugh, and enjoy growing up together.
QuestionWhat if my sibling and I get heckled or something in public?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIgnore them. They are only making themselves look foolish. If they continue, contact the authorities about the harassment.Thanks!
Video: living with a sibling with a disability
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