Sibling relationships are a world of their own. By nature complex, the intricate dynamic is thrown for a giant loop when a special-needs sibling enters the picture.
The father’s story:
The issue of developing a relationship with a boy as severely autistic as Menachem is complicated, and it boils down to one question: How do you build a relationship with someone who isn’t looking for one? We, as his parents, have learned over the years to read his signals, to understand when he’s requesting an interaction and when he wants to be left alone. But for the vast majority of the people he comes in contact with on a regular basis, the issue of relating to him completely stumps them.
This is true even for his siblings.
We have one older daughter above Menachem, and two younger daughters. Each has her own particular way of relating to Menachem, grown in a large part out of her placement in the family, and, in a smaller part out of our efforts to “spin” the relationship.
My eleven-year-old daughter tries to play with him, but, not knowing how (and, like a typical pre-teen, not interested in hearing from her parents the right way to do it), her interactions generally last all of five seconds, and go like this:
He approaches her, she takes his hands, and starts to jump around with him. Typical for him, after mere seconds he breaks away and runs off. And rather than following him, using the techniques that we have learned to sustain an interaction with him, she leaves it at that.
But she loves getting smiles from him, she enjoys being with him. She’s not turned off by his behavior, because she understands that he’s different, that he has a problem. And that, I fully believe, is the key to all children’s acceptance of a special needs sibling. According to their age, according to their cognitive level, if a child can be made to understand the reason for a sibling’s “strangeness,” then they’ll accept him and love him.
However, there’s an additional aspect to my oldest daughter’s relationship with Menachem, and that’s the responsibility of caring for him. As an eleven-year-old member of our family, I feel strongly that she is old enough to assume some responsibility for her brother’s care. She sees how hard her mother and I work to care for him, she knows (at least partially) how much it takes out of us, and I feel it is perfectly legitimate to ask her to watch Menachem at times. Watching Menachem means much more than keeping an eye on him, it means keeping a hand on him, or at least staying within arm’s length, always. We are the only family I know that keeps a lock on their kitchen door, and that’s because if Menachem gets into the kitchen unsupervised for even a moment, the entire contents of the fridge are on the floor.
My daughter knows this, too, and if it happens while he is on her watch, because she chose not to follow our instructions, chose to watch him “her way” because it’s the easier way at the time, I feel justified in getting upset, and telling her to do a better job next time. My wife feels we can’t ask too much of her, that if we push her too hard she’ll resent it and rebel, but I disagree. While, as a parent, I don’t claim to know any more or less than the next guy, as a teacher of many years I see exactly what goes on in the classroom, and how students react to responsibility, to fair discipline, to limits. Children need and thrive on responsibility, and I’ve never seen a child rebel simply because they were pushed too hard.
My next daughter, who’s almost eight, is naturally more attuned to Menachem. That’s just her personality. They’ll run around the table together having a good time. She’s able to play with him a bit longer than her older sister, she’s open to receiving direction from us about how best to play with him, and her relationship with Menachem is overall a positive one. However, Menachem is strong and rough and, what’s worse, he doesn’t know his own strength. So he might, in the middle of the play, pick her up or push her and she gets hurt. This is one of the things we’re working on with him, to learn how to deal with his strength.
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