Sibling Interaction

December 03, 2014

teenage brother and sister

How to build relationships through play and communication

For families with a child with autism, finding ways to help siblings get along and play together can be challenging. Consider these ideas designed to facilitate interactions and support the development of play skills and communication for your child with autism and his/her siblings.

Find what is motivating to your child

By using your children’s interests you are setting the stage for interaction and communication to occur while having fun. Consider using materials and rewards the children would enjoy.  Be sure to include a range of items and activities.

For additional ways to motivate your child with autism, see Incentives for Change by Lara Delmolino, Ph.D., BCBA-D & Sandra L. Harris, Ph.D.

Set up play time specifically for siblings

Playing together is a great way to build relationships. Make an effort to set up daily or weekly play time sessions during which you or another adult will be present to facilitate the interaction. Start small, just a few minutes at first and as your children’s tolerance builds, increase the time. Keep play time targeted, structured and fun with clear and consistent expectations. Individuals with autism respond typically best when there is a concrete beginning and end, so using established orders of play with smaller easy-to-accomplish steps will keep play predictable. One example is “your turn/my turn” games that are developmentally appropriate for your child. Remember to show your enthusiasm and approval by offering positive reinforcement through high fives, smiling, clapping your hands, or whatever type of praise works best for your children. Consider setting up play times at the table, on the floor or in an environment with limited distractions. Simple changes in the environment can set the occasion for joint attention, imitation and social reciprocity to occur.

Visual supports such as a picture schedule can also facilitate communication opportunities. Consider implementing a visual schedule into your child’s daily routine that includes “Time with their sibling.” Using a visual schedule helps individuals with autism better predict and plan within their environment and time with their sibling can now be a part of their routine.

For more information on visual schedules, see Visual Supports for People with Autism by Marlene J. Cohen, Ed.D, BCBA-D & Donna L. Sloan, M.A., BCBA.

Provide increased opportunities for communication to occur between siblings

Remember, it does not always have to be the parent who responds to the requests of the child with autism. You can encourage sibling interaction by setting up opportunities for your child and his/her sibling to communicate each day. For example, have your child go to his/her sibling to request a preferred item or snack. By letting your other children help, you are providing an opportunity for them to develop a positive relationship. Keep in mind, your children can still effectively communicate and interact with or without words through eye contact, gestures, pointing, sign language, orienting to each other and facial expressions.

Jumpstarting Communication Skills in Children with Autism: A Parents’ Guide to Applied Verbal Behavior by Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Valbona Demiri, Ph.D., BCBA-D is a great resource for families who have a child with significant communication problems.

Find time for outdoor activities / community outings

A lot of great outings are free such as trips to the park or a simple play date in your backyard. When planning an outing you may want to keep it short, have a set plan of what you are going to do and try not to do too many things at once. Community outings provide a great opportunity to practice the communication and play skills you have been working on at home. For example, if working on turn taking with a board game you can work on generalizing that skill to taking turns on the swing or pushing the shopping cart.

Toy Ideas

Here are some suggestions for everyday and store bought items that my children might enjoy for a variety of ages and levels of development.

  • Visual toys that pop or have bright lights
  • Auditory toys such as harmonica, drums, vehicles or dolls that make sounds
  • Floor toys such as bubbles or a ball
  • Educational toys such as books, stacking blocks, or puzzles

Activation toys are good to build on joint attention skills. For younger children, cause and effect toys are highly recommended. For older children, games such as Jenga, Don’t Break the Ice, or suspenseful games build on excitement and can be fun for the whole family!

Additional Sibling Resources