Setting Reasonable Expectations for Siblings

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA

While all children have “special needs,” those with autism and other developmental disabilities often require more attention and support than their neurotypical siblings in order to complete activities of daily living. This can sometimes seem unfair to the other children, especially if they feel they have more chores to do and are sometimes expected to look after or speak up for their special needs sibling.

In this column, I offer some suggestions for parents who are dealing with this challenge.

Take the time to sit down with your neurotypical children and explain the differences and similarities between them and their sibling. This can help your children open up about how they perceive some things to be unfair, or how you treat them versus their brother (or sister) with autism. For example, one sibling may say that it’s not fair his brother never has to do the dishes. You can explain that his brother doesn’t have the safety awareness skills to handle sharp utensils. You might take it a step further – help him understand that he may feel “unlucky” to be the one who has to help with the dishes, but he is also the fortunate one who can go to the movies with his friends because he has stronger safety awareness skills.

Minimize creating tension or resentment. It’s important not to put added weight on neurotypical siblings by expecting them to help more around the house because their brother or sister can’t. This can unintentionally create resentment because they feel like they have more work to do because they have a sibling with a developmental disability. The same is true for all siblings. If your 2-year-old empties the toy bin all over the living room floor, it’s not fair to make the 6-year-old sibling clean it all up.

Remember that all children love being praised. Be sure to praise your children for helping out with odd jobs around the house. It’s amazing how children’s cleaning skills can drastically improve when we tell them they are the best cleaners in the world! If you need your children’s help with simple chores around the house, make sure they know they are appreciated.

What should siblings do if their brother or sister with special needs is being teased or bullied? Autism awareness has drastically increased over the last 10 years. Even so, people still do not fully understand it. So how can we properly raise our children to understand it? The simple answer is to talk to your child about how to treat all people during their day-to-day interactions. What would they do if someone were calling their best friend or their grandmother a name? Or teasing them because they are different? Teach your children to respond the same way regardless of the situation.

It’s also a good idea to set aside a specific one-on-one time with each child. All children enjoy having their parents’ undivided attention. You might plan to spend time with a neurotypical child when your in-home service providers are working with your child who has a developmental disability. Planning individualized activities to do with each child will show him or her that you enjoy their company.

Recognize when you need a break. As parents, we have a lot on our plates and we are constantly trying to balance all aspects of our families’ lives. It is important that we make time for ourselves so that we can support our family to the best of our ability.

Erica Kearney M.A., LABA, BCBA, is the Executive Director of the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit