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Parent-Child Interaction and Autism Spectrum Disorder ASD
Autism continuing education counselor CEUs

Section 6
Attribution in Siblings of Children on the Autism Spectrum

CEU Question 6 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Autism
Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

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On the last track, we discussed Family Trips.  This included priming, bringing help and finding activities the child will enjoy.

Have you had clients who were the siblings of an autistic child?  How did they cope?  Were their coping mechanisms healthy, or did they benefit from some intervention?

Tessa, age 38, was a single mother to four children, Eric, age 16, who had autism, Anna, age 13, Levi, age 10 and Ariel, age 7. 

Tessa stated, "Thank God my husband only left me 5 years ago, or I don’t know how I would’ve raised the kids…Actually, the kids are what I’m here about.  I want to be able to love all my children equally…but you know how much time autistic children can take up. Anna was a little adult when she was 3. I remember seeing her once, when she was 3, take 6-year-old Eric’s hand before crossing the street. It broke my heart. Levi, on the other hand, is the family wise-guy, always playing pranks and making practical jokes! Ariel, though, my 7-year-old…she hardly talks at all. She hides in her room and only comes out to eat sometimes. I want to reach my children, but it’s so hard being a single mom and trying to reach out to all of them!"

I stated, "As you are experiencing, it is very common for the parents of an autistic child to need to depend on their other children to help in his or her care. From what you’ve described, I would surmise that your children exemplify three different kinds of coping mechanisms to deal with their autistic brother, Eric. These include the parentified child, the family mascot and the withdrawn child." 

As you listen, think about how you might respond to each example of coping mechanism toward an autistic sibling.

Understanding Three Coping Mechanisms

Mechanism #1 - The Parentified Child

Tessa asked, "What about Anna?  I heard something about parentified children on Dr. Phil."  I stated, "I agree. Anna could be a parentified child.  This is a common reaction, and it means that she acts more like a parent than a sibling in relation to her brother. More than likely, Anna feels good to parent Eric and to do it well. I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be to parent four children, and I’m sure you greatly appreciate Anna’s efforts. As you can probably gather, though, I bet this is the best method Anna has found to get attention from you." 

Tessa stated, "Yes, I can see this. But I’m so afraid that she’s lost her childhood because of it!"  I stated, "That concern is understandable.  It’s a fine line between being a helpful sibling and bearing an undue burden. Parentification in moderation of children doesn’t have to be a harmful thing.  The situation can become more worrisome when acting parentified becomes the only way to get a parent’s approval, or when helping activities take so much time and energy that Anna has no time or place to be a child herself."  Tessa asked, "What can I do? At age 13 she’s practically at the end of her childhood now…" 

I stated, "You might want to provide opportunities for Anna to get to be a child again. Maybe you can have a friend or relative spend the day with Eric so that you and Anna can do something together. If you’re worried about leaving your other children, you can do something more routine like baking, gardening…etc. without having to ‘help’ Eric ‘help’ at the same time."

Do you have an Anna who parents his or her sibling?  Has he or she lost his or her childhood?  Might he or she benefit from hearing this track?
Mechanism #2 - The Family Mascot
Tessa asked, "And Levi, my 10-year-old? He’s my practical joker…always trying my patience.  What could he possibly get out of that?" I stated, "Levi, seems to fit the family mascot coping mechanism. This is a little bit like being a super-achiever, because the family mascot tries hard to establish an identity that his or her parents can’t help but pay attention to. Often, this child will act funny or goofy or be a big show-off. Some mascot children like to test the limits of what their parents can endure, but persist because they have fairly resilient personalities." 

Tessa stated, "He does test me…all the time. But, despite his antics, when I’m particularly stressed or upset, he’s always the one that makes me laugh."  I stated, "Commonly, the family mascot’s motives are fueled by an age-appropriate self-centeredness mixed with a bit of  genuine altruism."  Tessa stated, "Something that does worry me about Levi, though, is that while he does very well in school, he has extremely high expectations for himself. He wants to be the best at everything…from basketball to his science fair projects…" 

I stated, "You may want to make sure that Levi doesn’t  set demands on himself that he can’t reasonably meet.  Like Anna, Levi may have realized that succeeding in activities that adults value are ways of garnering parental attention. I have a friend who’s a pediatrician, and he has an autistic brother. Part of his entire reason for going to medical school was to get his parents’ attention, even though it wasn’t something he particularly liked." 

Do you have a Levi?  How has he or she tried to get his or her parents’ attention?  How does he or she find a sense of identity?

Mechanism #3 - The Withdrawn Child
Tessa asked, "What about my little Ariel?  I’m the most worried about her withdrawing." I replied, "Third, in addition to the parentified child and the family mascot, let’s discuss the withdrawn child.  Some siblings of autistic children do not try to earn parental attention by helping. They simply withdraw. Eric’s behaviors may be driving Ariel away, or she may feel overwhelmed by your burdens."

Tessa stated, "Ariel seems terribly depressed, which is a scary thing to see in a 7-year-old.  She stays in her room all the time and builds forts out of her blankets and chairs…but she’s always alone." 

I stated, "Ariel seems like she wants to build a wall between herself and her autistic sibling, Eric.  She may be at risk for developing a clinical depression as she gets older, if no effort is made to draw her out. Withdrawn children are often younger siblings, children who have never had a period of development where they have been the primary focus of their parent’s attention.  Mostly these are children who would never have been the most gregarious children anyway; the kind of children who are slow to warm up in a new situation. With the added stress of minimally available parenting, they can psychologically ‘give up.’" 

Tessa stated, "Do you think Ariel will need her own therapy regularly?"  I stated, "You may want to look into it. Of all the sibling coping mechanisms, a withdrawn child is the most likely to benefit from a one-on-one relationship with a therapist that is just for him or her, and where Eric doesn’t have to be included, or can be gradually included as Ariel learns to understand and master her own feelings."  Tessa stated, "I should probably try to make individual time with her a priority too…" 

I stated, "Every so often, you may want to take Ariel out somewhere where she can choose the destination and activities. Even if you just take Ariel with you to the grocery store, having an opportunity for her to make choices that positively affect other family members can help restore a sense of self-worth, and a sense that she really exists psychologically as an important family member and not just as an appendage." 

Do you have an Ariel?  Is he or she clinically depressed?  How might he or she be drawn out?  Would your Ariel benefit from hearing this track?

On this track, we discussed parenting siblings.  These included the parentified child, the family mascot and the withdrawn child. 

On the next track, we will discuss Taking a Break.  This will include dates and support groups.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Arnaud, S. (2020). A social–emotional salience account of emotion recognition in autism: Moving beyond theory of mind. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Advance online publication.

Blackman, A. L., Jimenez-Gomez, C., & Shvarts, S. (2020). Comparison of the efficacy of online versus in-vivo behavior analytic training for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, 20(1), 13–23. 

Garbacz, S. A., McIntyre, L. L., & Santiago, R. T. (2016). Family involvement and parent–teacher relationships for students with autism spectrum disorders. School Psychology Quarterly, 31(4), 478–490.

Gliga, T., Senju, A., Pettinato, M., Charman, T., Johnson, M. H., & The BASIS Team. (2014). Spontaneous belief attribution in younger siblings of children on the autism spectrum. Developmental Psychology, 50(3), 903–913.

Johnson, N., Frenn, M., Feetham, S., & Simpson, P. (2011). Autism spectrum disorder: Parenting stress, family functioning and health-related quality of life. Families, Systems, & Health, 29(3), 232–252. 

Proff, I., Williams, G. L., Quadt, L., & Garfinkel, S. N. (2021). Sensory processing in autism across exteroceptive and interoceptive domains. Psychology & Neuroscience. Advance online publication.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 6
What are three sibling coping mechanisms toward an autistic child? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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