Growing Up Alongside a Sibling With a Disability

How does growing up with a special needs sibling change you?

When children help with the education of a brother or sister with special needs, the outcomes are often good for both.


According to Dr. Milevsky, siblings of children with special needs often grow up quickly and feel a sense of responsibility for their siblings in a phenomenon often called parentification. This might seem like a positive outcome for parents — a good kid is one who takes some of the burdens off her parents


Not long after my mother learned that my brother, David, was autistic, she began what she called “little school”: sessions in which she taught him to draw faces, cut with scissors, read, and cook. He was 4, I was 2. I recently asked her how she balanced David’s needs with mine. “You were the teacher’s assistant,” she said. “I was trying to make you feel important.”

It was the 1970s, and researchers considered siblings of children with disabilities as a sort of disadvantaged population. Since then, a body of research suggests that when children help with the education of a brother or sister with a disability, the outcomes are often good for both — and my mom was way ahead of the curve. She believed she could help David and lift me up, too. There wasn’t a lot of guidance at the time, so Mom hired an education specialist and talked to David’s teachers and school psychologist.

More recently, researchers have viewed families with special-needs children through a more positive, less stigmatizing lens, said Meghan Burke, Ph.D., an associate professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This modern framework acknowledges the strengths children may gain from having a sibling with a disability, including enhanced adaptability, empathy, and tolerance said Burke.

However, several studies have suggested these siblings also have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and difficulty with peers. Low-income families are especially vulnerable because they have less access to resources.


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