Autism doesn’t only affect the person with the diagnosis. It touches the entire family—parents, siblings, grandparents, along with others as well. Children who have a sibling with autism, or any diagnosis that falls within the DSM IV, are constantly reminded of their difference.
Typically, when children are growing up, they strive to differentiate themselves from their sibling so they are seen as an individual, and not a unit. For example, if one child excels in sports, the other may strive in the arts. Each child manifests a unique specialty which ensures that they are noticed because it punctuates their character. They are guaranteed a moment in time where they shine in the eyes of their parents.
For parents however, time is something that they seem to never have enough of.
For most of us, eight hours of our day is dedicated to work, eight hours to sleep, two hours to commute, and what remains of “free” time is often spent on our chores. This gives a person only a small amount of time that is theirs—a compact 24 hours on the weekend, and a sprinkle of hours during the week post the exhaustion of work. How does a parent divide their time fairly between children when one of them has a diagnosis that requires a constant amount of focused time to ensure that they make progress? What does that mean for the sibling who doesn’t require as much focused attention?
I have asked the question, “How do you divide your time between your kids?” to parents with one child on the spectrum and one that isn’t. Immediately, they look befuddled, pause, scan their brains for an appropriate answer and then say something like, “ Not that well.” They appear to be slightly pained knowing that their time isn’t spent equally between both children. How can that be expected when they know one is doing fine while the other is obviously not?
Dividing one’s time equally between two children simply isn’t possible for parents when their 40-hour work week is topped off with 40 hours of ABA therapy to help recover their child from autism. The best solution to handle the time dilemma is to plan time for a special weekly enrichment activity that the sibling can look forward to and enjoy with their parents on a one-on-one basis. Ideally, this activity should bring attention to that child’s particular specialty or interest, whether it be sports-related, in the arts, or some other endeavor.
Whether typical or not, all children need to be noticed, appreciated, and given focused attention. While achieving an equal balance of time between a child on the spectrum, and a typically developing child may not be realistic, one can still attend to and satisfy the needs of both by focusing on the quality of one-on-one time spent, and potential for enrichment, and perhaps in the process, create some wonderful memories.