How to explain autism to siblings

22 February 2017

Dear friend,

How do you explain autism to children? Lately we have come across this issue in our own family as our youngest son (aged 7) has wanted to know more about his brothers autism. He has always heard the word 'autism' at home as we talk openly with our eldest son about his issues. But thanks to a caring teacher we recently found out that our youngest was struggling to understand what autism means and was feeling a sense of care and responsibility towards his brother (read more). We needed to explain what autism is.

We have always been open about autism but before now (under 7) we felt it was important to keep things simple. Things we told our son:
  • Your brother has a busy brain
  • Your brother sometimes gets a full head
  • You are safe
  • Your brother loves you
  • You are not autistic
  • You can’t catch autism

Initially, this was enough but the autism discussion needs to be an ongoing one because as our son has grown so have his questions. Things we told our son at age 7:
  • Autism is a problem in the brain - we have stuck with the busy brain analogy
  • People with autism learn in different ways
  • Your brother has strengths and weaknesses like you do
  • If your friends have questions, we can help you figure out what to say
  • You are not responsible for your brother that is mummy and daddy's job
  • Your brother does love you he just doesn't love cuddles and kisses
  • It is good to ask questions

We read books together but more importantly we talked about them. There are some fabulous books, written for children that explain autism in a simple way. We already had some books which we shared with our big lad when he was diagnosed so we shared these with the little man and talked about them.

  • Autism is by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan
  • Autistic? How Silly is That!: I Don't Need Any Labels at All by Lynda Farrington Wilson

  • My brother is autistic; Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
  • The Children's Guide to Autism; Fiona Reeves

Don't be afraid to Seek specialist help - there are courses/groups for siblings of special needs children.

It is important to remember that every autistic child is different. We read the books etc but then we talked about our experience of autism and what autism means to our family together. What helped more than anything was that the boys talked together. The big lad explained what autism meant to him and that he was OK and didn't need to be looked after but thank you. We reassured the little man that whilst it was right and good to care for his brother he must not worry too much, that wasn't his job.
We watched the presentation that my son put together for his class; What is autism? (See here).

Like I said earlier the discussion needs to be an ongoing one. I understand that my son may need more time to discuss his feelings especially as he hits the teenage years. But I am confident that as a loving family and with open communication we can face this together.

Need more help? Check out the Sibs website.

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