Things My Sibling Taught Me
By Nicole R. Rivera, Ed.D., MT-BC
Northern Illinois University
Growing up with a brother or sister with autism creates the potential for a unique family experience. During an interview study with young adult siblings of people with autism spectrum disorders, participants were asked to reflect on what they gained from their sibling experience. Overwhelmingly, the sibling participants described feeling a sense of maturity. One woman described “having to grow up faster and realize that it’s not all about me.” Learning to focus on the needs of their sibling fostered a sense of inner strength that the participants did not observe in their peers.
The ability to recognize the needs and perspectives of others is a skill that several siblings felt transferred to other parts of their lives. One woman snickered as she confessed that she was very adept at getting her brother to do what she wanted him to do. Another man in the study claimed that, “I’ve been very good at reading people.” The siblings described a level of sensitivity and awareness of the needs of another that translated into other relationships and their work life. The sibling experience exposed them to differences in learning and a greater appreciation for the strengths of others.
Having a sibling with autism gave the participants opportunities to engage in different roles. The participants described being a teacher, friend and advocate. Engaging in these roles transformed the siblings. One man shared: “I couldn’t afford to not have strength. It made me really actually tough. I feel like I’m a lot different because of it. I feel like I’m unique. I’m creative. You get to see things differently. You have a different set of knowledge.”
Family experiences shape development. Growing up with a sibling with autism taught these individuals about understanding the perspectives of others, negotiating relationships, and appreciating different approaches to life. Most importantly, the siblings described a sense of transformation and ego-strength that they carried into other parts of their lives.
Sibling relationships are often full of ups and downs. In the moments of challenge, it can be important to embrace the potentials. What has your sibling taught you? How have you changed? What do you carry with you into other parts of your life? These things are the gift of the experience.