The New Arrival: A Lifetime of Love for Siblings with Special Needs
By Karen Kabaki-Sisto, Autism Communication Expert
Recently, the mother of my 11-year-old client with autism gave birth to a girl. A few hours after the baby arrived, I texted “Congratulations!” to the mom. She texted me back with: “I’m worried. ‘Lisa’ won’t come near the baby. What do I do?”
The birth of a baby is the greatest joy in the world for a family. But for brothers or sisters with special needs, the bond with their new sibling is not necessarily automatic due to challenging adaptations in social relations and communication.
If your own child needs help experiencing the beautiful feelings that come with the new role of ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Big Sister’, try these suggestions:
Upon the mother’s return home, your child can prepare to make her and baby feel welcomed. In this way, your child can begin to bond by actively anticipating and participating in the excitement of the arrival of his or her new sibling. Your child can see the many different relations this baby has to each member of the family, such as other siblings, cousins, aunts, and so on. Your child will experience the contagious family joy by being part of the cheer.
While the mother is recovering, family members can help your child make:
a welcome sign or banner for mother and baby (e.g., “Welcome to our family, baby Jessica!”; “The Brown family is so happy you’re one of us!”)
a welcome card for baby (e.g., “I’m so excited to be your Big Brother, baby Jessica. I will help you and teach you. I love you.”)
congratulatory cards for Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, etc. (e.g., “Mom, you did a lot of hard work to bring my baby brother to me. Thank you so much for giving me someone else to love.”; “Grandpa, now you have another grandchild to take to the park with the rest of us.”; “Dad, now we will be able play baseball better when we teach the new baby how to be the catcher.”)
a (preferably) handmade or store bought keepsake like a wall hanging, picture frame, blanket, baby toy like a rattle, or stuffed animal
Important New Responsibilities
Essential elements to any relationship are a sense of belonging, being wanted, and appreciation. It is very important to point out that with this new addition to the family, your child is given a very special duty as caretaker, not just of his baby brother or sister, but of Mom and Dad too.
You can use language like, “Your baby sister is so lucky and proud to have you help her grow up.”; “Just like in school, you have very important jobs to do for Mom, Dad, and the new baby.”; “We need your help, and we are so happy and lucky that you will help us take care of the new baby.”
Your child will see and physically feel that he gets back your appreciation through words, smiles, pats on the back, and so on. She will emotionally feel concepts like responsibility, leadership, duty, empowerment, dedication, and pride.
Together with your child, make a list of concrete tasks she can do to help Mom upon her recovery and Dad throughout the day (supplemented with drawings and pictures if your child has difficulty reading):
Give Mom water
Physically help Mom off of and onto the couch
Help Mom pick something off the floor or reach something
Ask Mom how she feels, hold her hand, and hug and kiss her more
If Dad’s hands are full, your child’s hands become Dad’s hands (e.g., “Both of my hands are holding the baby. So, pretend that your hands are my hands, and please give me the baby’s bottle that’s on the table.”)
Push the baby carriage so that Mom and Dad can do something else that’s necessary
Children with special needs don’t always have a strong concept of knowing what others think, feel, and want – a concept called ‘theory of mind.’ Because babies can’t say directly what they want through talking, children with disabilities sometimes have difficulty figuring it out.
Fortunately, there is a list of limited needs for a baby as opposed to other children or adults who have endless possibilities. After your child gets better at interpreting the baby’s needs, it can be easier to teach and improve his ability to better tune into others’ needs – a skill that empowers him to build strong relationships in life.
Together, make a list of concrete tasks your child can do to help the baby:
Hug, kiss, pat, touch
Assist in giving a bottle
Assist in changing a diaper
Assist in bathing
Hold the baby with assistance
Read a story
Rock the cradle
‘Play’ with the baby by making silly faces, cranking the mobile, shaking a rattle
Talk to the baby about your day
Adjust the baby’s temperature by putting on a blanket or taking one off
Your child will see and physically feel that the baby gives us back satisfaction through being quieted and happy. He will emotionally feel proud that the baby’s happiness is directly due to his efforts. You can use language like, “Look. Baby Kayla was crying before because she wanted to be rocked. Now she is not crying, and she is so happy because you rocked her cradle,” and “Wow! Baby Nikko was crying before because he was trying to tell us that he felt cold. I know baby Nikko is thanking you because you gave him a blanket, and now he feels warm.”
As a reminder, this list can be posted in frequently visited areas like the refrigerator or television. On the list, make a column entitled “Date” to ensure that your child indeed accomplishes these jobs. Soon, he may naturally volunteer to help - not out of obligation, but out of true want.
Building Communication Skills Around Baby
Since babies do not talk, they do not judge, so there is no pressure on your child with special needs to use language correctly or quickly. She can feel free to verbally communicate in any way, shape, or form that she wishes, and the baby will still respond with eye contact and smiles.
With your child feeling at ease, she can experiment with different loving words and tones of voice, which may include creating her own form of baby talk or imitating your “motherese.” Simple and repetitive, motherese has an exaggerated melody of speech and body language that mothers often use to grab their baby’s attention and teach communication (e.g., “Who’s the cuuuuutest lil’ baby in this whole wide world?! Who?! Whooooo???? YOU! YOU! YOU!”).
Have him be on the lookout for the baby’s ‘firsts’ that he will write down in a baby book. For example, you can model, “Oh my goodness! Ryan, look, at the baby. The baby is making a raspberry face. I have never seen him do that before; have you?! Let’s write down today’s date and time in the baby book.”
He will be observing nonverbal body gestures and facial expressions like eye contact, smiling, giggling, discomfort, and so on, all of which are aspects of communication that your child himself might have difficulty recognizing as well as expressing. He will learn to observe very small changes in body language, and he might even start looking forward to future milestones indicated by the baby book, like turning over, crawling, and talking, to name a few.
Are you eager to help your child communicate better but not sure where to begin?
What you will learn...
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Love throughout time
Growing so attached to the baby, your child might look toward long-term developmental hallmarks for which she can prepare. You can extend the baby book into toddler years where you can set future dates together to teach the baby how to talk, read, color, play games, etc. Your child may wish to begin to collect some items out of generosity to use with the baby later on.
The Greatest Gift
Babies are the miracle of life for so many reasons - and the birth of a new family member is especially empowering for a sibling with special needs. So often, children with disabilities need a lot of help and someone to take care of them; however, this time, they are the caretakers to take charge.
Within a few short weeks after following these suggestions, my client above loved being the ‘Big Sister.’ She took genuine care of her baby sister, spontaneously and affectionately reaching out to gently touch her every now and then and quickly responding to her every need.
The dignity of feeling important as the ‘Big Brother/Big Sister’ and an integral part of the family is the most exceptional responsibility your child can have. With your help, he or she will experience the spectacular feeling of love your baby gives and an unconditional desire to return that warmth for a lifetime together.
About the author:
Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, has been a communication expert for over 20 years. As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor, Karen has been empowering people with autism & special needs to have more meaningful conversations like never before. Her highly effective I CAN! For Autism Method™ - perfected for over 10 years and now incorporated within the iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” - is changing lives through improved social and language skills. It is 100% fun for both kids and adults to use! Join the conversation at www.iCanForAutism.com.
[This article first appeared in Exceptional Parent Magazine, March 2016]