The siblings of special needs kids are considered “typical” and are helpful to the family in more ways than we account for. They support their special needs brother or sister by mentoring them through play, encouraging them to push towards their goals and by accepting their role as the child “without special needs” in the family. Compared with their peers, they learn more patience and often mature more quickly than their friends whom do not have special needs siblings themselves.
The “typical” sibling also has a special relationship with their parents both because they have less time and attention needs, and are whole in a way their sibling is not. Their celebrations and achievements in class, the community and the world of the family are fulfilling for the parents. Even when they are the younger child, the typical sibling takes the role of caretaker to their brother or sister. Sometimes the child without special needs suffers in ways that go unnoticed while other times they are comfortable with their positioning the family and with the life they have with their sibling. The parents, the parenting and the functioning of the family unit determine how well the typical child adapts.
When parents communicate effectively with the typical child and encourage them to appreciate their sibling, while being open about their challenges and concerns, the children grow healthily. If the parents treat the special needs child without discipline or guidelines but hold the typical child accountable, resentment and upset may be seen. When family activity, timing, intimacy and social life is completely controlled by the needs of the special needs child and little focus is placed upon the typical child, problems may arise. Balancing the needs of both the special needs child and the typical sibling might feel like walking the tightrope for parents.
In sibling groups devised to address the needs of the typical child we see a myriad of issues. They may feel overlooked, or treated with too much expectation. They may feel embarrassment or anger when they cannot go where they want because the parents are tied up with the schedule of their ‘family with special needs’ life. But the most poignant observation is the sensitivity the child has towards their special needs brother or sister. The resilience they have to their role as caregiver and the less needy child. Finally the typical sibling often shows the perceptive ability to see the world through a less egocentric and yet still rose-colored pair of glasses.
Sharon Hensel-Cohen is a Speech/Language pathologist in private practice in Tarzana and Director of Nicky’s World, a Center of limited communicators and their families. Nicky’s World is holding sibling workshops in March. Visit www.nickysworld.com or contact Sharon at [email protected] for more information.