Autism's Impact on Older Siblings

Photo: Brother and sister

Children with autistic siblings also
experience symptoms similar to
autism; © SXC

“While the impact on older siblings was not statistically significant, the trend may indicate the presence of symptoms associated with broader observable autism characteristics seen in previous studies”, says Laura Lee McIntyre, a professor and director of the University of Oregon's school psychology program.

The study gives a fresh look at autism's early effects on families by comparing control and experimental groups whose ages, education and socioeconomic situations were virtually identical. Twenty families had a preschooler (ages 2-5 years old) diagnosed with autism and a typically developing older elementary school sibling (6-10); the control group of 23 families did not have an autistic child. Older children with diagnosed learning or mental disabilities were excluded.

McIntyre studied families chosen in New York. They looked closely at sibling adjustments, involving social, behavioral and academic performance as recorded by both parents and teachers, and at the well-being of the mothers, whose average age was 36 and 94-95 percent of whom were married. The median age of older siblings was seven and most were first- or second-graders.

"Contrary to what has been found by many researchers, we found that older siblings were pretty well adjusted, with no significant differences in parent-reported or teacher-reported social skills," said McIntyre. "These are all typically developing kids." Teachers, however, reported slightly more behavioral problems for the siblings of children with autism than control siblings. "There was a trend toward significance," she said.

The problems resembled hyperactivity but not at levels generally attributed to attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Teacher reports noted that these children exhibited slightly more fidgeting, movement and attention problems.

"Children with siblings with autism may be experiencing some sub-clinical symptoms of hyperactivity or attention problems," noted McIntyre. "Parents didn't report seeing such things at home. Teachers see these children in a more structured environment. Siblings of children with autism may be at heightened risk for developing problems, potentially over time."

Siblings of children with autism probably should be watched with appropriate academic supports in place, she said. "Our findings are rather positive overall, but these kids should be on our radar screens.”

MEDICA.de; Source: University of Oregon