Enhancing the Sibling Relationship: Outcomes of a Support Group for Brothers and Sisters of Children with Autism

Friday, May 13, 2016: 3:55 PM
Room 308 (Baltimore Convention Center)
M. Coffman1, A. Muskett1, R. S. Factor1, L. Delk1, A. Trubanova2, N. Kelso1, A. Scarpa3, J. A. Richey1 and J. M. Wolf4, (1)Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, (2)Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, (3)Psychology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, (4)Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT

Sibling relationships are typically the longest-lasting relationships in an individual’s life. Siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often take on increased responsibility in the home and become the primary caregiver of their affected sibling in approximately 73% of cases (Gidden, 2007). These stressors may have negative impacts on the unaffected siblings (UAS), such as feelings of guilt or shame. Support groups specifically for this population remain limited (Tudor and Lerner, 2015). 


In the current study, we present data from three 10-week support groups for UAS of children with ASD. We hypothesize that as a result of participating in the support group, UAS will a) develop a more positive relationship with their sibling with ASD, b) show a decrease in internalizing problems (e.g., depression and anxiety), and c) gain increased understanding of ASD.


Sixteen children (ages 5-12) who have a brother or sister with ASD participated in one of four 10-week support groups based off of the SibShop model (Meyer, 1994). One group is currently in progress, and will be completed in December, 2015. As such, current data only include the three completed groups. Curriculum was developed to provide psychoeducation, problem-solving skills, and coping strategies. Parents and participants completed several questionnaires pre- and post, regarding the relationship between the UAS and the sibling with ASD the: Sibling Relationship Questionnaire, and Satisfaction with the Sibling Relationship Questionnaire. Parents reported on the UAS’s internalizing symptoms on the Behavioral Assessment System for Children – 2. Participants completed a semi-structured interview to assess their understanding of ASD: The Understanding of Autism Interview. 


Analysis of data from participants (N=12) indicate that UAS reported increased satisfaction with their relationship with their sibling with ASD (Cohen’s d=2.4), but decreased pro-sibling behavior by their sibling with ASD (d=1.09). Parents noticed an increase in pro-sibling behavior from the UAS (d=0.5) and child with ASD (d=1.6). Parents reported that UAS showed increased adaptability (e.g., better ability to change plans; d =1.05). Additionally, pre-group interviews indicated that 25% of the participants thought that ASD could be ‘caught,’ although none of the children believed this after the conclusion of the group. Effect sizes, rather than p values are presented due to the low sample size, and as yet insignificant results.


Participants noted improved satisfaction with their sibling and the relationship. This, coupled with the improved understanding of ASD, indicates that the support group provides adequate psychoeducation to help improve the sibling relationship. Parents observed an increase in UAS ability to change routines, as well as increased pro-sibling behavior from the sibling with ASD. Additionally, these results indicate that parents also noticed this improved relationship, including more positive interactions from both the UAS and their child with ASD.

Interestingly, UAS reported decreased pro-sibling behavior from their sibling with ASD. It could be possible that participant’s increased understanding of autism led to reappraisal of their siblings’ behavior, resulting in increased ability to take changes in stride, as well as improved perception of the sibling relationship.