- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

The needs of a disabled child oftentimes can overtake a family’s time, organization and attention. Such needs don’t have to, though, says Donald Meyer, founder of the Sibling Support Project of the Arc of the United States.

Mr. Meyer recently compiled recommendations from dozens of siblings in his nationwide network. Here are some of the top items that siblings wanted parents and teachers to know:

• Acknowledge siblings’ concerns.

For instance, if the typical sibling says she is embarrassed by something her brother did, acknowledge the brother’s behavior, even admit that it embarrasses you, too. Then look at the source of the embarrassment. Can the behavior be changed? Can the typical sibling compromise?

Either way, it is important to model a sense of humor, Mr. Meyer says.

“The silver lining is that embarrassment seems to resolve itself by the late teens,” he says.

• Give typical children many degrees of freedom.

“Siblings were put into this world to be more than the role model for their brother and sister,” Mr. Meyer says. “If their passion is soccer or the clarinet, parents need to celebrate that.”

Suzanne Davis, mother of two typically developing sons and one son with disabilities, says she has learned to compartmentalize what things they can do as a family and what they can’t.

“I don’t want my two other sons to not be able to do things,” says Mrs. Davis, of Chevy Chase. “They shouldn’t have to not play tennis because of Cooper. I don’t want them to be regretful or resent him. I have to prioritize the family so everyone is happy.”

• Find a way to carve time to spend with typical kids, Mr. Meyer says. Even small amounts of time can send the message “I care about you, too.”

“I know moms who pull their kids out of school for a drive, lunch or just to talk,” he says. “Whatever schooling she is missing is more than compensated.”

• Expect typical behavior from typically developing siblings. Teasing and arguing are typical sibling behaviors, even when one has special needs, Mr. Meyer says.

It is necessary for typical children to be able to let off steam. Typically developing siblings deserve a life where they can sometimes misbehave or get angry, he says.

• Get out and meet peers.

Take advantage of opportunities for your typically developing children to meet other children in families like theirs. This can be in the form of a formal play group or by striking up a friendship with a similar family from the special needs child’s school or physical therapy group, Mr. Meyer says.

Susan Hartung, a Gaithersburg mother of four children (two with autism), says she has found great camaraderie in meeting other families with special-needs children.

“You need to find someone else who speaks the same language,” she says.

• Talk about the future.

Early in life, many brothers and sisters worry about obligations they will have toward their siblings years down the road, Mr. Meyer says.

He says parents should bring the typical children “into the loop” early but also give the message from the start that they have their parents’ blessing to pursue their dreams and that their involvement will turn out to be a choice, not an obligation.

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