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Adult Siblings Who Have a Brother or Sister with Autism: Between Family and Within-Family Variations

Sibling relationships have been studied for a very long time especially where one of the siblings has an intellectual disability such as autism. Researchers have classified the adult sibling relationship with different aspects including warmth, rivalry and conflict. Even if these siblings cannot visit each other frequently due to geographical limitations, according to previous research, siblings still feel closeness throughout their adulthood as they did when they were children. The sibling relationship becomes more active usually in the context of declining health or when one of the siblings has a disability such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

ASD is a relatively recent prognosis and is still being investigated with respect to its origins and manifestations in the patient. One aspect to note is that many autism patients experience social impairments which can specifically affect sibling relationships because they may not understand the emotions or experience the other sibling faces. Previous research on sibling relationships where one of the siblings has ASD is limited to childhood behavioral experiences rather than analyzing the relationship itself. Previous research shows that in “normal” families, the siblings were emotionally attached and had positive affectations. However, when one of the siblings had a disability, the siblings in childhood were not as emotionally attached compared to adulthood relationships with the same scenario. This could be due to the fact that the child does not fully understand what is happening. In adulthood, these relationships prove to be vital and in fact it has been reported that a more positive relationship has reduced depressive symptoms in the caretaker siblings.

The sibling relationship is characterized by past experiences but also by other familial relationships, such as the parent-child relationship. Attachment theory explains this because some contact needs to be maintained for the sibling relationship to be successful and the more contact experienced leads to a closer relationship. There has also been research showing that a larger family helps with relieving stress because the weight of caretaking can be distributed among multiple siblings or family members, which can also strengthen the sibling relationships within and between family members.

In this study, the researchers collected data using a 12 yearlong longitudinal study of families with adolescents or adults having an ASD prognosis who were recruited through agencies, the media, clinics and schools. Most of the siblings were of Caucasian ethnicity and over half of the siblings in the study were women. Another interesting aspect is that more than half of the siblings had at least a bachelor’s degree and were employed. Most of the caretaker siblings were older than the sibling with ASD, which is also interesting because in another paper, it was reported that older children tended to have ASD which would lead to younger children also having ASD.

Overall, the study found that there was greater variability within family relationships rather than with between family relationships. The study also supported previous findings with regards to that the relationship is conditioned by the normal sibling’s experiences rather than the characteristics of the sibling with the disability. These findings support the attachment theory, for example. It would be interesting to analyze the sibling relationship in today’s current environment with COVID-19 and physical distancing. If the sibling with ASD is immune compromised, it may be difficult for adult siblings to visit them if they are living separately and every communication is virtual. I wonder if the same level of emotional attachment exists in virtual circumstances.

Orsmond, G. I., & Fulford, D. (2018). Adult Siblings Who Have a Brother or Sister with Autism: Between-Family and Within-Family Variations in Sibling Relationships. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(12), 4090-4102. doi:10.1007/s10803-018-3669-8

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