A child, especially special needs siblings, can grow up with the labels of special needs but does not really understand what they mean. Children are able to use words well before they can understand them. For this reason, we need to share about special needs with our children in ways that are developmentally appropriate, and to repeat the information many times over the years by increasing mature and complex language, as the child grows.
For young children, keeping the explanation simple is key. A child will understand concepts in relation to concrete behaviors. A 2 year old is constantly asking “what” questions that aim to name objects. So, at this age for example, the child will understand autism as lining up all the toy cars in a row or throwing cereal on the floor. Children also use questions and their curiosity at a young age seems endless. Our child might ask why his/her sister does not talk but he/she won’t understand the abstract explanation. Answers should be kept simple.
As children grow up, they will soon gather vast amounts of information about special needs. Peer pressure can make siblings very vulnerable to the reactions of other children concerning their sibling with special needs. Some kids can turn away from their siblings to fit in with their peers. We need to be aware that our kids at this stage get easily embarrassed in front of their friends so correcting them should be done alone.
At the stage of adolescence, children can access a lot of information. However, keep in mind that factual understanding and emotional acceptance are different issues. At this age, children ask questions about their role in managing disruptive behavior. Don’t put too much responsibility on them. Some techniques are not easy for us as adults and may be too much for them. We need to be alert as parents and encourage them to pursue their lives. Seek therapy help if the sibling is not connecting with his special brother or sister and instead reflecting his/her pain through rebellion and chronic anger.