reillysLinda Reilly is a proud Army wife and part of OAR’s RUN FOR AUTISM team. She has run several races with OAR, including the Philadelphia Marathon. Her husband, Major Shane Reilly, and their two children, Charlotte, 8, and Alexander, 5, have also participated in the RUN FOR AUTISM. Alexander is on the autism spectrum. The family lives in Carlisle, Pa.

When my son, Alexander, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, my husband, Shane, and I knew things would be different with our family. We had to dedicate our time to helping him overcome this new challenge while still giving his older sister, Charlotte, the attention and support that she needed.

Many families who are raising a child with special needs with typically developing siblings face this dilemma. Together, our family discovered several ways to make both our kids feels special. I hope these suggestions will help you too. 

Be honest with your children.

Charlotte, who is now 8, was young when her brother was diagnosed, so she did not realize

Alexander was differnt from other kids his age. However, she began to ask more questions as

she grew up: Why does Alexander do that? Who are these people (the therapists who came in to work with Alexander) coming into the house? Why do you take Alexander to all these appointments? She was really concerned about her brother and confused about all the attention that was given to him.

Shane and I wanted Charlotte to know exactly what was going on with her brother, so we took time to answer every question honestly. We told her that her brother has autism, but that does not make him different. He just needs extra help to communicate his feelings and thoughts.

We bought age-appropriate books for her to read and learn from. Holly Robinson Peete’s book, My Brother Charlie is a great one. Autism Through a Sister’s Eyes, by Eve Band and Emily Hecht, helped as well.

Even though she is older now, Charlotte still has questions and we are still making the time to answer them as fully and honestly as we can.

Enroll your children in programs just for siblings.

We discovered that while there are many programs out there for Alexander and other children on the spectrum, Charlotte often felt left out. I did some research and found a program called Sibshops. This wonderful program is just for her and other kids who have siblings with disabilities.

Now, she has a special day to go and have fun while relating to other kids who know what she is going through. Having that special time is so invaluable to her well-being. She has a chance to express her thoughts and feelings to kids who have had similar experiences, and leaves every time feeling that she is not only special but also a great sister to her brother.

Let your children help.

Your first instinct when your child has special needs is to take everything on yourself and to try to pay attention to your typically developing children at the same time. It doesn’t take long to realize you need help.

Asking your typically developing children for help can be a great solution. A brother or sister can help a sibling with autism in a number of ways. You might even ask the therapists working with your child to involve siblings in therapy sessions.

Alexander is working on his social skills now and Charlotte helps by being a “student” in his classroom so Alexander has to learn to initiate communication with others. They also work on projects together that require taking turns and learning new skills, giving Alexander a chance to “practice” interacting with Charlotte as he would his classmates.

Charlotte is very protective of her brother and loves to help him. Especially when her dad is deployed, she is a big helper to me. This has given her a chance to be more involved with our family and to share in the attention that she might not always get. When Alexander was first diagnosed, he hardly went to Charlotte for anything. Now he knows that his big sister is there to help and I am so very proud of that.

Involve your children with your advocacy efforts.

OAR’s RUN FOR AUTISM program has empowered our family and we love to share this opportunity with others. Not only do I run races every year, but Shane does, too. In 2012, while he was deployed overseas, I wanted the kids to be part of these efforts. Both kids have run a local race in town, and Charlotte proudly wore my OAR singlet. When I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in November, Charlotte ran in the kids’ race that same weekend. She donated to our event page with her own money.

We also participate in local Autism Society events as a family. We like to include our family and friends so we can all show how much we support Alexander. This really helps Charlotte know she is not alone and has family that loves her and her brother. She proudly lets everyone know that she is the big sister and is there to help Alexander.

Make it a team effort.

As I wrote earlier, you soon realize that you can’t do everything on your own. Having your spouse working with you makes a big difference, especially because it means you can take turns paying special attention to your typically developing children.

Set up a weekly “date” for the typically developing children and alternate who goes. This one-on-one time is crucial for your children and you as parents too, so it’s important to make the time for it. Charlotte loves having time with me, my husband, or both of us.  It gives her something to look forward to and gives us time to create meaningful memories with our daughter.

My parents and in-laws also take Charlotte by herself for a few days of vacation. She has a great time being the center of attention for a change.

Make sure all your children know that they are special.

This is the most important thing that you can do. Soon after we got Alexander’s diagnosis, Charlotte said to me, “Why does Alexander get all the attention? I am special too!”

Right then and there, Shane and I knew we had to take a step back and evaluate our actions. We knew that in order to help both our kids we had to make sure Charlotte did not feel left out. It does take effort and time, but it is so worthwhile. My kids have a great relationship, and we are so grateful.

Celebrate every milestone your child with an autism spectrum disorder reaches. Let your typically developing children know that they are part of the reason why their sibling is succeeding. Praise all of your children often, make sure they know how much you love them, and tell them how proud you are!