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In some families, autism seems to require all the available time, energy, attention and money. This is, of course, fairly common when a child is profoundly autistic or when behavior issues create chaos on a regular basis. It is also surprisingly common when a child is high functioning – but one or both parents feels the need to focus on that child’s special needs to the exclusion of other concerns.
When there are other siblings in the family, such absolute focus on a child with special needs can create serious problems.
“When parents obsess over one child’s autism,” says Dr. Robert Naseef, a psychologist specializing in families with special needs, “the other child can be effectively neglected. What’s it like to grow up with parents who are obsessed with autism? Who would want to be in that household?”
For some typical children, the pressure can be too much. “Sometimes,” says Naseef, “the so-called healthy sibling, if they can’t get attention, develops a symptom — depression, anxiety, or behavior issues. If you see these developing, you have to think about ‘is this to equalize the playing field? Is this happening because the autism is so consuming in our family?'”
The red flag for trouble, says Dr. Naseef, “is a new symptom that wasn’t there. The child has learned ‘I need a problem to get my parents’ attention.’ We have to be careful we’re not teaching that by emphasizing the sibling’s developmental problem.”
How should parents handle the situation? “Sometimes, just paying attention can make the difference.
Sometimes just readjusting how the family is operating can do it. Sometimes, therapy may be necessary. Families may need help from a psychologist, social worker, or counselor.”
Naseef notes that family problems can’t be solved through a sibling support group, though such groups can be helpful to the child involved. “Sibling groups can help siblings become better adjusted by putting things into perspective and helping them to see that they’re not alone.”
Dr. Robert Naseef