of Children with Autism:
An Interview with Sandra Harris
Interview by Allison Martin
L. Harris, Ph.D., is a Professor at the Rutgers University and the Director
of the Division of Research and Training at the Douglass Developmental
Disabilities Center. Her book, Siblings
of Children with Autism, explores the impact of raising a child
with autism on the family, especially on brothers and sisters. In this
compelling interview she discusses ways to cope with the impacts of autism
on your family.
What do studies show about the effect of autism on other siblings in
Sandra Harris: There are really two aspects to this question.
One concerns the extent to which the siblings of children with autism
pose more problems needing professional attention than other children,
and the other aspect is to what extent their sibling's autism influences
what they think about and worry about. I think it is important to distinguish
between them. In terms of the first question, in general research on the
siblings of children with autism suggests that most of them are much like
other children their age. There is however a small group of these children
who are more vulnerable to worry and anxiety or to "acting out"
behavior than is true for other children. So, while having a sibling with
autism does not usually mean that a child needs professional attention,
there is that subgroup of children for whom this is important. The child
who is often worried, moody, sad, or angry for extended periods may benefit
from help from a mental health professional.
I think parents sometimes confuse those clinical issues with the more
common concerns that are part of growing up with a sibling with autism.
In thinking about that it is important to put the experience in perspective.
Each of us is shaped by the environment in which we grow up. For example,
if we live in poverty, have a parent with a chronic illness, experience
the death of a grandparent or our parents get a divorce, all of those
things shape the person we become. The same is true for having a sibling
with autism. That experience influences what we think about, how we view
ourselves, and what our worries might be. These kinds of issues are different
from the kinds of clinically significant problems I mentioned. All of
us had worries and concerns when we grew up. Childhood, like the rest
of life, is rarely free of stressors that are inherent in living. Those
concerns focus on the things we see around us and how they impact on our
lives. That is true for siblings of children with autism just as it is
for every child. The good news is that caring parents can help children
deal with these kinds of concerns, as they do for other issues that arise
in a child's life. Having a sibling with autism poses problems that must
be solved, but it does not mean that one's childhood will be without joy
What can parents do to help siblings understand autism?
Sandra Harris: I think the key thing in helping a child understand
autism is to adjust what you say to your child's age and ability to understand.
Very young children will not benefit from a discussion of the details
of autism, but they do need to be reassured about concerns about a sibling's
behavior. Older children can gradually come to understand how autism influences
their sibling's life. Younger children will notice mostly the visible
behaviors of their sibling such as tantrums or stereotypic behavior. Older
children will understand that it is the impersonal challenges that are
How can parents encourage more positive interaction between their children?
Sandra Harris: The best way to encourage interaction is to make
sure both children have the skills to play together. I think it is a good
idea from early childhood to find simple things your children can enjoy
together. The child with autism should be taught some games he can play
with his siblings. It may start with rolling a ball or playing catch and
gradually become more elaborate as they grow older. Older children might
jog or shoot baskets. If they have a tradition of spending even a small
amount of time together the time can gradually be expanded. Older siblings
in particular may enjoy learning some basic teaching skills so they can
be "teachers" of play. David Celiberti and I did some research
in which we taught older children to teach basic play to younger brothers
with autism. The videotapes we made showed how much both children came
to enjoy these play times. Beth Glasberg and I discuss that kind of interaction
in the latest edition of the sibling book.
How can parents deal with resentment and competition from younger siblings?
Sandra Harris: A certain amount of jealousy and competition between
siblings is almost universal. I think it is important for parents to remember
that and not over-react to expressions of jealousy when they see it. On
the other hand, it is important that every child have the experience of
feeling perceived and valued by her parents. That means making sure to
find some time that is private, special time with your typically developing
child(ren). It might, for example, be the time that is spent driving with
dad to the store on Saturday morning and a half hour with mom at bedtime
each night. What you do is not as important as the fact that it is time
that belongs to the child and he or she has your focused attention.
In closing I would like to add that what has impressed me most about
families of children with autism is the resilience and strength they bring
to that experience. I have known hundreds of families over the past 30+
years and one of the important lessons they have taught me is about learning
to carry life's hard demands with grace and humor.
our review of Siblings
of Children with Autism.