Recently I heard the story of an adult on the spectrum who joined her three siblings to care for an elderly mother in hospice. When the mother died, the siblings had to make decisions and manage her small estate. During this trying time, the interaction was unfortunately fraught with sibling conflict and misunderstandings, unresolved anger, and open fighting.
Of course this kind of event can occur in any family, but all too often I hear these types of stories in what I call “Neurodiverse Sibling Units.” Like neurodiverse marriages, neurodiverse sibling interactions can be fraught with issues when perspectives, communication styles, life choices, and interests are extremely divergent, and there is little shared understanding or commonality. This can lead to a distant or even estranged relationship with very little interaction.
I want to add here that I have also seen neurodiverse siblings who are very close to each other and very supportive, regardless of frequency of contact. I especially see this in units where there is more than one member with an Asperger/autism profile or where neurodiversity is common in the family. This often brings about a basic fit and understanding between siblings.
Of course, unlike neurodiverse partners who choose each other, sibling units are not formed by choice. But siblings can choose how to approach and value their relationship. This is difficult if there is a mismatch in what each person would like, but a shared motivation to improve the relationship can turn into a closer connection. Not every group of siblings may be able to find a path forward, but in some circumstances even if one person is willing to take the lead, significant progress can be made. So let’s look at the unique challenges of neurodiverse sibling units and some suggestions on how both siblings might structure interactions and communication to avoid estrangement or even reunite.
- Understand there may be residual feelings of anger and resentment left over from childhood. Sometimes the perceptions of the past may be completely different for siblings, as if they grew up in different families. This may be particularly true if the sibling with the Asperger/autism profile was not diagnosed until adulthood. Resentment of unequal attention, love, discipline, and expectations (real or perceived) may be felt by both neurotypical and autistic siblings alike. The years of misunderstanding may have created entrenched feelings for each family member that may need to be re-examined. Be aware of these feelings and understand that other siblings may have a completely different point of view on family history. Recognizing and letting go of the anger will prevent future interactions from being clouded by the past.
- Set up clear and regular communication, but also be understanding. Figure out the best modality of communication for all siblings and nurture the relationship with regular contact, but remember to be understanding. Many siblings on the spectrum have executive functioning issues or anxiety, which may make reaching out more challenging. Unexpected events or the demands of life can interfere. Do not assume the reason for someone’s lack of response or communication is because they don’t care.
- Watch very carefully how you communicate with each other. Avoid blame and accusations when confronted with differences in behavior or life choices. Don’t discuss things that are going to bring up unnecessary conflict. Try not to dismiss the other person. Be understanding and supportive even on small things or in areas that may not be as important to you.
- Learn from each other. The key here is to really listen. I’ve already mentioned that perceptions can be very different, and it is easy to fall back on assumptions about each other. Neurotypical siblings may feel their autistic sibling is uninterested or self-focused, or siblings on the spectrum may think everything comes easily to their neurotypical siblings. These things may not be true. Clear away preconceived ideas and hear directly from each other.
- Navigate differences of need with respect. Try not to get angry if someone is unable to reciprocate, behave, or respond in the way you want them to. Sometimes being direct and clarifying expectations will help. If you want a call or card on your birthday, be explicit. If hugs make you feel uncomfortable or loud family gatherings are difficult, communicate that to your sibling. Be understanding if your sibling forgets and remind them with patience. Wherever possible, find a compromise or middle ground that respects everyone’s needs.
- Sometimes an uninvolved, outside perspective can help. If feelings have overwhelmed the relationship or communication seems to be parallel rather than interactive, use a neutral third party such as a therapist. It should be someone who understands neurodiversity and can view the issues through both lenses.
No matter the history, it is important to maintain an open mind that things can change and improve. By letting go of anger, showing flexibility, accepting different life choices and behaviors, siblings can take the first steps together to form a stronger relationship.