The sibling factor

October 15, 2012

The sibling factor

One of the toughest things that I can remember while going through the process of all three of my boys being diagnosed as having autism, was knowing where one ended and the others began. That may sound a little bit strange so let me explain. Like most younger brothers, Elliott (my 6 year old) thinks Gavin (my 12 year old) walks on water. In many ways, Gavin has more influence over Elliott than I do. It's like a form of hero worship and it's very difficult to counter that influence. The problem is that Gavin has quite a few challenges of his own that often influence his behavior in a negative way. Some of those challenges include, reactive attachment disorder, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and aspergers. None of these are his fault but the impact of his behaviors are the same regardless. Gavin, unfortunately, is not a good role model for his younger brothers. They learn by watching him and often mimic his behavior. This is not always a good thing and can often make it more difficult to know what is modeled or learned behavior and what is inherent behavior. Modeled behavior is basically mimicked or copied behavior. You can think of it as "monkey see, monkey do". Inherent behaviors are naturally occurring and not influenced by outside forces. Like many kids on the spectrum, Gavin can become hyperfocused on certain topics. In other words, he can become obsessed with things that interest him. Gavin has introduced Elliott to his imaginary worlds  which in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, Gavin's imaginary worlds are much different than most. Gavin suffers from schizoaffective disorder, in which he basically, sees and hears things that aren't really there. Many times the things he sees and hears are dark, violent and scary. This creates a situation where Gavin struggles with whats real and what's imaginary. This is completely outside of his control but nonetheless, a problem. Does that make sense? When Gavin isn't properly medicated, he will literally, fully interact with things that only he can see or hear. It's heartbreaking to watch this. However, this becomes a problem (aside from the obvious) because Gavin believes so completely these things are real and as a result, he tries to and is often very successful in convincing Elliott that they are real as well. As you can image this is very confusing and terrifying for Elliott. On one hand Elliott doesn't see what Gavin does but on the other hand, he believes everything that comes out of Gavin's mouth. Elliott has his quirks and it's pretty obvious when those come into play but much of the other behavior is a mystery at this point. Even the ADHD-like behavior could simply be anxiety and nothing more. Elliott is quite prone to anxiety, very sensitive to stress and easily overwhelmed. Even the professionals have a difficult time distinguishing the difference between these behaviors . There's no real way to know what is Elliott's natural behaviors and what are behaviors learned from his big brother. We are also beginning to have the same problem with our youngest as well. He has begun using the same phrases as Gavin and also has started to self-injure, just like his big brother. It's actually really frustrating because we don't know where one ends and the others begin. We spend a great deal of time trying to tease things apart. This is very time consuming and honestly, sometimes next to impossible. Luckily, we have a solid educational and support staff to help us sort this out. The current school of thought is that, as Elliott builds relationships with his new friends, Gavin will have less and less influence over his behaviors... Hopefully, we will work through this in short order and get Elliott back on track. It really is amazing how much influence siblings have on each other. Many times this influence can't be very positive and sometimes not so much, as is the case in our family. Do you find that your children are affected by their special needs sibling? How are they affected? I would really be interested in hearing your experience?



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