Home Tips: Sibling Interaction

For truly any child, the sibling relationship can be a combination of great/horrible, best friends/worst enemies, play partner/nemesis.
Anyone with a sibling knows this is the truth, especially when you and your sibling(s) were young kids.

BUT, when a child with ASD is tossed into the mix then totally normal sibling hi-jinks can take a more drastic turn.

A big concern of the families I work with is sibling interaction, or lack thereof. Usually, the issues fall into one of these categories:

- The typically developing children ignore the Autistic child, and have learned it's easier to just leave them alone
- The typically developing children fully give in to whatever the Autistic child wants, and have learned that letting their sibling bully them is better than making their sibling upset
- The typically developing child IS the bully, and has learned that their Autistic sibling won't put up much of a fight/won't stick up for themselves

As a professional, I see it as a great benefit when my clients have siblings living in the home because now I have a built-in pool of peers to reach for whenever we are targeting social-emotional or play goals. Win-win!
Usually though, the sibling relationship is so strained and broken that we can't include the brother or sister in the session until we work on sibling interaction first.

So there is the 1st tip: until the sibling relationship is repaired, just tossing the kids together to work on skills will likely not end well.

Need more tips? Okay:

  1. Step back from the problems, and focus on what you DO want to see - Are there issues with name-calling and teasing? Then you want to see respect. Are there issues with hitting or kicking? Then you want to see calm bodies. Are there issues with always having to win every game? Then you want to see playing by the rules. When it comes to behavior: focus on what you DO want, rather than what you don't want.
  2. Start small- Baby-step your way to success rather than jumping into the deep end. If your children start attacking each other 5 minutes into playing Candyland, then let's play the game for 3 minutes. Or 2 minutes. Start at a level where everyone can be successful, and gradually increase your expectations over time.
  3. Teach functional communication - Ensure that your children are able to communicate (vocally or non-vocally) what they do and do not want. Usually when functional communication is lacking, there will be lots of aggression instead. Make sure the children are taught how to communicate "I don't want to play", so there will be no need to hit, punch, or kick. 
  4. It's OK to dislike your sibling - Sometimes my clients just don't seem to like their siblings very much. Especially if the sibling is much younger. While we can't force "like", what we can do is maintain an expectation of respect. It is not okay to throw blocks at your baby sister because she's annoying. Nope.  Instead, how about taking a break from the situation, asking to wear headphones, or practicing patience and self-calming? 
  5. Remember, relationships evolve over time - This should be good news for someone! As adults, we tend to forget that in our childhood we felt differently about our siblings at different ages. This is completely normal. I have some clients I have worked with for years, and I have seen the ebb and flow in their children's relationships. From "I can't stand you!" to "I want to sit next to Erica!". This will happen. Just because your children have a terrible relationship right now does not mean it will always be that way.

Lastly, any quality ABA provider can include sibling interaction goals into the treatment plan, provide parent training to help you generalize strategies when the therapists are not around, and intentionally plan for play dates or community outings with all the siblings (basically, moving from rehearsal to a live show).



  1. Hi! I was just wondering if you had any resources on providing siblings with support in follow ABA? I'm a BT and looking on ways to help a brother to stop giving in and reinforcing his siblings behaviour! Thank you!

    1. Hello!

      This post is more general information. Your case BCBA will be able to modify the individualized treatment plan to either help the family (which includes siblings) generalize the treatment plan, or actually include siblings in program goals to target cooperation, interaction, pro-social behaviors, emotional regulation, etc.


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