With another lockdown meaning that siblings are thrown together full-time again, many families will be feeling the stress. As always, how the change will effect our autistic kids will be at the forefront of our minds. However, in our house (and possibly in yours) this new development is actually having a bigger impact on my youngest daughter, who is neurotypical.
While I always encourage people to think and talk positively about autism, both with autistic children and their siblings, I also believe it's important to acknowledge that life can be pretty tough for neurotypical siblings at times. My daughter has had to live with huge meltdowns, both physical and verbal, and has witnessed and experienced a lot of stress at home. She also had 6 years of dealing with a very challenging and upsetting school run - culminating, two years ago, in her brother not being unable to attend school at all due to anxiety. At this point we decided to move my daughter to a new school, to give her a fresh start - and it helped tremendously. School became a precious space that was only hers, with no connection to the tricky time we had all been having previously.
The first lockdown was a real blow to her. She was desperately unhappy and stress levels rocketed as there was no break and no space. So when I heard about the schools shutting once again after Christmas, my heart sank for her. I knew how devastated she would be. Two weeks in and in many ways I am hugely relieved at how it's gone. School has risen to the challenge in an immense way and she is doing her full timetable live on Zoom with her teacher. I know we are extremely lucky to have this support, and I remember from last time how hard it is without it. However, even with this great online learning, the issue remains that she no longer has that precious time apart from the intensity and stress that is a fairly regular feature of our house.
So I've been thinking long and hard about how I can support my daughter with this - in the immediate situation of lockdown but also longer term. Pre-COVID we definitely found that creating 1:1 time for both children out of the house was really important and helped reduce tensions. Trying to recreate that in lockdown is hard but we are still trying to make space for my daughter to have focused time with one parent doing activities she enjoys, to have Facetime play dates with friends (often playing Minecraft) and to get out and about in the garden as much as possible.
I also want her to know that her feelings are valid and that she is not alone. I took her for a walk last week and we talked about the fact that there are lots of other children who also have autistic siblings who may, at times, find things hard. She said it would be helpful for siblings like her to know more about autism "so they can understand that if their brother says something rude to them, they don't necessarily mean it, and they might not realise they are upsetting you". She thought it would be nice to talk to other children who understand how she feels too. She and I are going to have a think together about how we could make that happen - and it might be something that we can share with other people through Autism Families. So watch this space for more ideas and developments, and in the meantime good luck with the lockdown juggle.
Green, L (2013) 'The Well-Being of Siblings of Individuals with Autism' ISRN Neurology https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3657443/