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How to Help your Child with ASD with New Siblings
OCTOBER 13, 2020
Preparing to welcome a new baby into your home can be an exciting and happy experience, but it can also be a difficult time of adjustment for older siblings. When older siblings have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they may need additional consideration, support and attention to assist them to cope with this dramatic change in their life.
Many siblings struggle with mixed feelings when they hear their mother is going to have another baby – excited about having someone new at home, scared that parents will have less time for them, and uncertain about how life at home will change. When a child has ASD, these mixed feelings may be more intense depending on his/her level of functioning and unique traits associated with ASD.
WHY MIGHT IT BE DIFFICULT FOR MY CHILD WITH ASD?
Communication Many children with ASD struggle with being able to communicate verbally with others, so it may be difficult for them to ask questions they may be wondering about, or talk about emotions they may be feeling.
Managing Change Children with ASD of have difficulty with managing changes – big and small. Having a new baby in the house leads to many changes – availability of mom and dad/other family members, changes in rules, changes in sleeping routines, and changes in caregivers (family, babysitters, respite services).
Sensory Challenges Children with ASD may be very sensitive to sounds, smells and touch, or they may seek out that kind of sensory input. New babies tend to be very loud when they cry and they have smelly diapers. The baby may reach out and grab hair or feel heavy when placed in a child’s arms or lap. These sounds, smells and physical sensations may be overwhelming to a child with ASD.
Show family photos to show that families grow and change with the addition of each child. Show your child pictures of him/her as a baby and talk about his/her growth and changes. Create a story or book together about your growing family. Read this book frequently to your child as it may take time for him/her to understand and to think of questions or worries.
Watch television shows/videos together that have stories about new babies. Some excellent shows that depict child birth and new babies are Caillou, Dora the Explorer and Arthur. Watching these shows, probably multiple times, can promote discussions on common feelings that children may experience upon the birth of a new baby in the family.
Introduce the idea of ‘babies’ to your child. Visit other babies and point out other babies when out in the community. Talk about what the babies are doing (e.g., crying, sleeping, breast feeding) and why they might be doing that. If your child is able to understand and do pretend play, role play caring for a baby with a life size doll. To assist your child with adjusting to sharing your attention, you could carry the doll around, pretend to feed it and change its diaper. If your child gets used to seeing you attending to someone other than him/her, it may be less of a shock when their real life sibling arrives. Be careful that your child understands the difference between a doll (an inanimate object) and a baby (who has feelings and can easily be injured).
Anticipate issues and questions that your child may not be able to verbalize and provide simple answers to them. If you are unsure how your child will respond to the cries of a baby, play audio of a newborn crying. Your child’s response to this will help you plan for how your child will respond to the loud sounds and may also help to desensitize your child to a sound that soon with be inevitable in your home. Introducing information and watching your child’s response early in your pregnancy will provide you time to make the necessary environmental changes.
Teach things you want your child to know about being an older sibling. You may need to teach and model the meaning of words like ‘gentle’ and ‘fragile’. Ensure your child knows and complies with safety words like ‘stop’. Teach these behaviors by using lots of praise and other meaningful rewards for behaviours you want to see. You may need to practice what these behaviours look like in various situations and with various people giving those instructions. Have your child practice things he/she may want to help you with that would be safe with the baby (e.g., getting diapers and wipes, turning on a music box, folding blankets and baby clothes, etc.).
Plan for divided attention and help your child get to know alternative caregivers. Make your child’s social world bigger before the baby is born by arranging visits with grandparents or other family members who may help out while you are in hospital and after the baby arrives. Plan a routine for special time with dad or other close adults who will be available after the baby’s birth to help out with your child. You may need to plan for getting ‘respite care’ for your child with ASD as you may need some time without trying to meet the needs of both an infant and your other child.
Anticipate your needs for additional support services. If your child has difficulty with aggressive or unpredictable behaviour, seek help well in advance. There are often wait lists for services and any form of treatment may take time to have impact on your family’s functioning. Speak to your ASD service provider, school social worker or family doctor for assistance in arranging for these services.
Make major changes early and before the baby is born. You may need to move your child to another bedroom or to a new bed. Make this move a positive experience and do it well before the baby arrives. You may need to increase time spent at day care or change a school routine (e.g., staying at school for lunch). Speak with the contact person at these programs to arrange for making these changes at least two months prior to the baby’s birth. Also plan to teach major self help skills (e.g., toilet training, dressing self) well before the baby is born when you have more time and also to prevent your child from feeling like you expect more because you are too busy with the baby.
Take care of important tasks. This may include school registration, making doctor and dentist appointments, and compiling paperwork for important meetings. Shop early for equipment you may need such as safety gates to block access to the baby and other necessities. Plan early for emergencies such as premature labour/delivery, unexpected hospital admissions or health problems that limit your ability to care for your child.