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Lisa Haberman MSW (Masters in Social Work )

Lisa Haberman:  Bio and Overview

Bio: Lisa is the older sibling of a brother (36) with Autism.    She received her BA in Special Ed. and a Masters in Social Work (Yeshiva University - Wurzweiler School of Social Work).

Overview:   I’m going to give you some information based on my education, experiences of growing up with an autistic brother, and from working as a professional in the field with families.  Growing up, my parents kept my brother home and ignored what they were told which was to put him in an institution and get on with their lives.  They did with him what we now do with children in early intervention programs.  I remember having people in and out on a regular basis working with him.  My parents always kept me involved and informed to the best they could for a young child.  As I got older, I was kept more informed and got involved at a young age working with other children with disabilities.   For the last 10 years I’ve been working with families and their children ages birth to five.  In my spare time I try to help others by sharing my knowledge and experiences.  My thesis in school was autism and the family with a focus on sibling issues.  

Sibling issues are an area that is fairly new to the field and there is not a lot of research in this area at the present time.  

Attitudes toward the disabled child are a main factor in how efficient the family as a whole manages to deal with this stressful situation.  The type of a relationship the normal siblings are able to have with their disabled sibling.

It is important to realize that parent’s are not always aware the effect an autistic sibling has on the other sibling(s).  The parents may need to give them some guidance in dealing with their issues.   Conflicts are resolved when parents reach an awareness of the social implications the autistic sibling has on the rest of the children.  The parents need to find a way to compensate for the disadvantages the normal children my have.  One of two extremes can occur.  The parents become overprotective of the child and the other siblings become resentful, or the parents become resentful and the sibling become very caring.  The family may become so dedicated to the autistic children that that they may forget to develop a relationship with the other children.  If this happens, the normal sibling may become resentful because of added responsibilities that may be placed on them, being treated as an adult before they’re ready.  As they get older, they may be deprived of normal activities and lack of social interactions with peers is very common.  Parents may not be aware of this since the siblings may not be aware of this them selves and just see what accepted because of their autistic sibling.  They may not even be aware they’re doing this themselves.  Growing up, there were times I was resentful, embarrassed of my brother.  I never realized this at the time until I started looking back and realized these feelings were normal and it was all right to have them.  I also never verbalized my feelings about my brother to my parents.  I guess I felt they had enough to deal with and didn’t want to bother them.  It’s important for parents to ask siblings about their feelings, needs, and thoughts.  Looking back, I kept to myself and didn’t bring many friends home that I socialized with at school.  The reason was I was fearful of their reaction to my brother.  First-born siblings are more likely than younger siblings to praise, teach and display dominant behaviors with their autistic sibling.  More positive behaviors have been associated with siblings widely spaced in age.  Those closer in age will sometimes display more jealousy and aggression.  It is normal that the sibling wants there own life, not be a babysitter or helper.  They may move out before they’re ready or retaliate against their parents in any number of ways.   It’s more difficult when there’s a stepparent involved. 

The second scenario I mentioned, when the parents become resentful, and the siblings become caring.  The parent’s are not uncaring, but may be neglectful at times of learning to help the child.  This can take place in many ways and leaves the non-disabled sibling in charge.  This happens when the parents feel over burdened due to the special responsibility the autistic child requires on top of their regular everyday responsibilities.  When this happens, caring siblings take on the parental role and pick up the slack.  This needs to be questioned especially when it’s the younger sibling taking over.  The caring sibling begins to get more responsibility from the parents and accepts the role with little or no question.  They think it’s just normal and part of growing up, is to take on more to help the sibling who’s not able to.  When this occurs, siblings still go though periods of resentment at some time.  It may even happen more.  The parents also sometimes have increased expectations of the normal sibling and may not even be aware of this.  Parents feel it makes up for the deficits of the disabled sibling.  As a result, most siblings feel more unspoken pressure to succeed in life and do this at the unrealized expense of other areas like socializing with friends.  Cultural issues also play a role in the family. 

It is important to have good communication within the family and keep the normal siblings up to date and involved in decisions as much as possible.  My parents always explained things and kept me involved in what was going on with my brother.  Another area is feelings.  Feelings vary in intensity and it’s important for families to help the children deal with them in an open, honest fashion.  Negative feelings are also normal and due to a variety of reasons and need to be acknowledged and discussed as well.  It may be hard for the child to even realize or admit their feelings and some times parents just have to be aware of what’s going on and try to engage the child to be open with you and whatever they are feeling is normal and alright.

With older siblings, parents sometimes expect them to care for their disabled sibling.  This is something I cannot stress enough that needs to be discussed.  This can be a very hard burden that puts a strain on the sibling’s present and future relationships.  It needs to be discussed early and openly.  It is important to peak to your family lawyer about estate planning.

Frustration and embarrassment are very common feelings felt by siblings.   They may be fearful as they get older that friends don’t accept them because of their disabled sibling.  This sometimes continues throughout their entire life and they may wonder if they’ll ever get married or have a family of their own.  It is normal that siblings may feel the same ambivalent feelings as their parents.  This includes rejection, doubt, anger, fear, embarrassment, confusion and jealousy just to name a few.   I feel it is very important to keep the entire family involved as much as age appropriate with the ongoing information and decision-making process.  In my own experience my parents included me in as much decision making as possible, and because of this I am grateful.

Please feel free to join in the discussions on the talkAutism Discussion Boards at any time!

For past talkAutism Specialty Chat transcripts:


Book of the Month
December 2002

Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way to Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Children's Confidence by Lawrence J. Cohen

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