Sibling Support Across the Spectrum

Baylor education professor creates program for families with autism, focused on sibling interaction

The lifelong bond shared by siblings lasts, in most cases, long after parents are gone. These important relationships are especially significant in families with autism, as siblings naturally take on many of the caretaking responsibilities alongside their parents. Jessica Akers, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology in Baylor’s School of Education, saw a need for greater focus on these sibling relationships and has created an innovative treatment model for children with autism and their families. 

Sibling SUCCESS (Supporting Unique Collaborative Care to Encourage Shared Success) invites the siblings of children with autism or “special siblings” to collaborate and participate as a vital member of the intervention team. Although behavioral interventions are highly effective for children with autism, these behavior programs — while including parents — do not address the importance of the sibling relationship. The project is funded by a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“We forget that there are other family members, and their opinions and their feelings about what’s going on are important,” said Akers. “The sibling relationship is often overlooked but plays an essential role in the life of an individual with autism. It lasts longer than the parent-child relationship, and after parents, siblings are the most common caretakers of individuals with disabilities.”

Including special siblings in “earlier rather than later” conversations about future plans for their sibling with autism, Akers said, can help ensure appropriate preparations are made. The program will provide three levels of training and support related to including siblings within behavioral interventions:

  • Level 1 will be an extended program targeting the reduction of challenging behavior and increase in prosocial behaviors;
  • Level 2 will be a four-week program promoting positive interactions between siblings; and
  • Level 3 will be a one-day workshop to teach siblings how to use basic behavioral tools to enhance the quality of interactions with their siblings with autism.

In addition to providing these direct services, Akers and her team will provide a professional development workshop on collaborating with siblings to practitioners working with children with autism. Over the next three years, Akers and her team will use the information from this project to develop a socially valid service model for promoting collaboration with special siblings.