Word meme: Let’s not give our kids the message that there’s a difference between being nice to a typical person and a disabled person. That the latter makes them somehow a “hero” while the first is expected as the norm.

The myth of the martyr “autism sibling”

We have often written about the idea of the martyr parent or alternatively, the “warrior parent”- usually referring to a parent that launches a crusade against their child’s disability while painting themselves as somehow special or better than a typical parent. This type of parent will proudly wear a tshirt announcing their child’s disability, often proclaiming how their child is a “superhero”, while at the same time openly mourning their fate.

If there are other children present in that family, especially typically developing children, often they are pulled into the cause by natural extension. If they are growing up with the paradigm of the tragedy of disability (whatever that disability might be, but in this case autism), they will likely quite early on see their sibling as a victim, “poor” and “special”.

These typical siblings will often achieve hero status just by being related to someone who is autistic. They will be praised as brave, compassionate and unselfish. Often it will be mentioned how much they are “missing out on” just because their sibling is autistic.

Reading popular and widely shared articles about disability issues, it is quite common to see these stories perpetuated. Part of inspiration porn, they make us feel good, in the same vein as the stories about a football team sharing a meal with an autistic teen give us the fuzzies. “My daughter the hero, her brother has sensory issues and doesn’t like Disneyland and she still made him a card” types of articles get lots of shares with praise being heaped upon the disadvantaged sibling who has gotten a lousy lot in life and yet managed to become a great person despite of it.

This idea that an autistic child’s influence over their siblings is that of an obstacle they must learn to overcome in order to better themselves is an unfair concept. First of all, it is deeply rooted in the prejudice against disability in our society, and the opinion that one type of child is “better” than another. It sets the autistic child  apart by painting him as the scapegoat anytime something doesn’t work out in the other child’s life.

How can we reframe our thinking and thus shape the perception of disability in our young children’s minds?

Avoid speaking of autism in a perpetually negative light. This does not mean not mentioning the difficulties associated with it. I often tell my kids that we all have challenges to overcome and while they might look vastly different, they are all valid. So, while one child might be navigating middle school and one might be perfecting her gymnastics and one might be working on potty training while one is working on using her communication device, none of these goals are given more value. Our journeys are different but we are all moving forward at our own pace.

Arrange your lifestyle so that the child who isn’t able to participate in an activity isn’t blamed for the rest of the family not doing it. In our family of six, it is not only Sophie who sometimes isn’t well suited for a certain outing or event. The age range is wide, and so are interests. Some children are athletic, some more academic, some prefer a walk in the park and some love going to the pool. It doesn’t mean we have to travel in a herd from event to event which not everyone enjoys or can tolerate.

Perhaps some things can be done with one parent and a few children, while the other parent does something else with the remaining kids. Perhaps a grandparent or a friend can stay with some kids while the rest attend an activity. If all else fails maybe a child can be pulled out of school once in a while for a rare one-on-one date with the parent. I can honestly say that I don’t think we’ve ever told our kids in 5 years that we can’t do something they want to do because Sophie won’t like it. They might not be able to do it immediately after asking, but we find a way to make it work in the near future.

Of course I feel touched when I see their sweet interactions. It isn’t however because I think that interacting with their sister is something praise-worthy just because she is nonverbal or autistic. I just like to see the kids being kind to each other in general, whether it’s the two older ones playing a game without bickering, or them grabbing a snack for the little ones, or playing with their younger brother in his room.

Let’s not give our kids the message that there’s a difference between being nice to a typical person and a disabled person. That the latter makes them somehow a “hero” while the first is expected as the norm. Teach them why their sibling is different and help them to understand them better. Structure your life in a way that everyone is equally important and no one is put on a pedestal. Make sure the autistic child can contribute meaningfully to the family unit.

This all begins with self-reflection and confronting our internalized prejudices against disability. Remember for every “hero” sibling who is shared and praised, there is the other sibling somewhere getting the message they are a nuisance because of their autism.

7 replies
  1. mummagrizzlybear
    mummagrizzlybear says:

    Your posts make me think a lot. I’m grateful for that. I do not disagree with your passion and ethos but struggle with some of the suggestion that a ‘warrior parent’ must therefore see disability as a tragedy.
    Encouraging kindness between siblings goes without saying and despite the challenges, we too, aim to operate on the basis that we will not ‘not do something’ because of one child’s conditions but man… I’d b a fool to think life is not impacted / affected (and when I say life I very much mean each of the family members lives including our youngest with autism).
    Some fully developed adults suffer ‘ignorance’ as their main disability and this may mean they struggle to understand something like autism. If you have children who have learnt about a particular disability and understands what helps and what triggers things and just how to interact with their sibling then praise them and recognise them, for they are achieving what so many adults are not yet capable of. Sure, remove the ‘superhero’ tags but recognition for compassion and resilience in the face of adversity (a challenge not a tragedy) goes a long way to enhancing self esteem and can strengthen relationships within a family as opposed to isolating a scapegoat.
    My theory is that siblings may well one day just have each other. They need to mutually develop understanding and a pattern for relating that will enhance their experiences; they can equally become a ‘team’ of experts on each other’s needs and how these need to be met so that should the worst happen and as parents we were not here to advocate for them that they may be able to look out for each other the way we’d hope.

    • Respectfully Connected
      Respectfully Connected says:

      Sure- encourage and support, acknowledge differences, and help siblings understand each other. But not “other” the sibling with the disability by making the neurotypical sibling wear a hero badge for simply having a sibling with a disability.

  2. Tamsin Parker
    Tamsin Parker says:

    My sister never missed out on anything because of my autism; she’s always made friends easily and has always had a good social life; so I was never really an obstacle to her. I’m glad that she was never treated as a martyr like other “autism siblings” are.

  3. monsuta87
    monsuta87 says:

    My mother once or twice told me that my sister had to grow up fast without so much support from my parents because of me and my difficulties, that stung and remained with me all my life.

  4. monsuta87
    monsuta87 says:

    Working with autistic individuals i am so often praised, and it makes me so uncomfortable. I would rather work with them than some awkward neurotypical teenagers any day!! Kids are hard work full stop!! Also any condition, be it autism or anything else, is different in different people. Autism Speaks is a harmful charity due it’s frequent scaremongering, autistics need acceptance not pity.

  5. Alina
    Alina says:

    I very much agree with what you wrote and I also want to add that sometimes the siblings’ needs get overlooked -perhaps especially when they are viewed and labeled through the lens of their sibling relationship (made a martyr/superhero or are parentified). (I am a late diagnosed spectrumite with siblings who had disabilities and I was parentified.)


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