What Do Brothers and Sisters Think? An Investigation of Expectations of Siblings with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Julie K. Ivey, Ph.D
Baylor University

 

Lucy Barnard-Brak, Ph.D
Baylor University

Abstract

This study, with its foundation in expectancy theory, investigated the expectations of siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Forty siblings, 7-22 years of age, in Texas completed a 19-item survey that examined the expectations of siblings of persons with ASD according to the sex and age characteristics of these sibling dyads. The results indicate that there is an association between the expectations of siblings of persons with ASD and the respective sex and age characteristics of these sibling dyads. Siblings of same-sex dyads appeared to have significantly higher expectations for their sibling with autism while siblings of different-sex dyads appeared to have significantly lower expectations for their sibling with autism. Results also indicate a significant association between sibling dyad age differences and expectations.

Once rare disorders, the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is more prevalent today than ever before. In the year 2000, the American Psychiatric Association estimated that the prevalence rate of ASDs was approximately 1 person in 2,000 (APA, 2000). Current statistics from the Center for Disease Controlís Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimates that ASDs are found in 1 in 150 children across the United States (CDC, 2007). ASDs transcend all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, though affecting more boys than girls. Due to these increasing numbers of families confronting issues associated with raising a child with an ASD, there is an increasing number of typically-developing siblings who are affected by ASDs.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that has a major impact on the family unit (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2002). Research indicates that having a child with a disability in the family leads to difficult role changes and adjustments for the family, specifically for siblings (Cuskelly, Chant, Hayes, 1998).  Research has heightened the concern for the adjustment and coping abilities of sibling of children with autism (Hastings, 2003). In considering sibling-adjustment, siblings of individuals with autism tend to view their relationship with their sibling with autism in a positive light when they are not worried about their siblingís future (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2001). Therefore, an examination of the expectations of siblings for their brother or sister with ASD in the future becomes an important indicator of sibling-adjustment.

Expectancy theory provides one conceptual approach to understanding the influence of sibling expectations, such that understanding how a personís expectations will hence produce specific outcomes as a combined function of the values a person endorses on those outcomes (e.g. Expectancy x Value = Behavior; Bandura, 1995).  From this conceptual approach, the behavior of individuals is often based on their expectancy beliefs about the probable outcomes of a particular behavior and the value of said particular behavior. Outcome expectancies can be viewed as a form of cognitive motivators for humans. Thus, the expectations for siblings of individuals with autism would appear to influence the behavior on the part of these siblings toward their siblings with autism.

As such, research has indicated that siblings play an essential role in the cognitive, affective, and social development of a child (Verte, Roeyers, & Buysse, 2003). Kaminsky and Dewey (2001) have suggested that siblings of children with autism are impacted socially and emotionally by their sibling and create both positive and negative perceptions of their sibling over time. In reviewing the literature, the results of various studies have shown that siblings of children with autism report less intimacy and nurturance from their sibling when compared to siblings of individuals with Down syndrome (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2001; Pilowsky, Yirmiya, Doppelt, Gross-Tsur, & Shalev, 2004). It is suggested that siblings of children with autism are reporting less intimacy, nurturance, and social insufficiency as a result of the traits that may be considered typically associated with autism (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2001).

Additionally, being raised with a sibling with a disability in general is predicted to have an influence on the social and emotional adjustment on members of the family (Pilowsky et al., 2004). Relatively few studies have investigated the impact of psychosocial adjustment of siblings with children with autism; however, some research has indicated that a child in a family with a sibling with a disability has increased risks for externalizing and internalizing behaviors (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2002; Fisman, Wolf, Ellison, Gillis, Freeman, & Szatmari, 1996). Further, siblings of children with autism have a heightened risk of developing poor psychological adjustment such as depression, loneliness, and behavior problems (Hastings, 2003; Pilowsky et al., 2004). Some studies suggest that poor psychological adjustment in siblings could be due to feelings of resentment, perceived loss of attention, or increased parental stress (Harris & Glasberg, 2003; Pilowsky et al., 2004).

The purpose of the current study was to examine the expectations of siblings of persons with autism according to the sex and age characteristics of these sibling dyads. To achieve this purpose, three research questions were examined. The first research question concerned sibling dyads where one sibling has autism, whether these siblings without autism have significantly different expectations for their sibling with autism according to the sex characteristics of these dyads (e.g. same- or different-sex dyad)? The second research question considered the relationship between sibling dyad age difference and these expectations. Our third and final research question examined whether after controlling for the ages of the individual with autism and their sibling, do same- or different-sex dyad differences in expectations (if any) persist.

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