If companionship is priceless, siblings are one of the greatest gifts a child can get in life. Siblings, or “hand and leg” in Mandarin (手足), is a special bond between one and another that is likely to last a lifetime. Siblings play a major role in the development of any child, especially for a child with autism. Studies have shown peer-mediated social interventions are effective approaches for autism (Tsao & Odom, 2006). Having a play companion is beneficial, as it enables opportunities of learning and interacting that is necessary to develop essential communication, language, and social skills. Being possibly the first peer they come across in life, siblings are the apt role model for children with autism, as they grow up under similar circumstances and share most of their childhood together. Sibling bonds also tend to be stronger and are more likely to last through trial and error as two individuals figure out the ways to get along with each other, surviving arguments or fights that commonly occur when children start interacting and playing with each other. 

Challenges of sibling play for children with autism

Sibling play is a familiar term here in EAP as a great booster in developing play skills. It is usually suggested when kids have mastered some play skills and are looking to expand their ability to tolerate multiple challenges when playing with others. However, there are a number of challenges that we need to take into account when we start introducing sibling play. 

Children with autism may find playing with others challenging, due to two main reasons:

  1. Restricted interests or inflexibility; and
  2. Limited social and play skills

According to the DSM-5, one of the key characteristics of autism is the restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interest, or activities. Association between repetitive behaviour and limited play activities was also found, where autistic children with more repetitive behaviour engaged in less play activities (Honey et al., 2007). 

a) Different ways of playing

Some children with autism prefer to play in ways that are different from typically developing children, resulting in a struggle for children with autism to play with others. For example, a child with autism may prefer looking at the spinning wheels of a toy car rather than engaging in a race. Kids with autism might develop rigidity in their play routine, where they would insist on their own way of playing, and any disruption may be upsetting for them. Developing their motivation to play with others would require a series of practice in extending their tolerance by challenging their rigidities in a systematic manner.

b) Dissimilarity on the progression of development of play and social skills

In addition, the dissimilarity on the progression of development of play and social skills between typical children and children with autism also adds on to the challenges for sibling play. Oftentimes, children with autism experience delay or deficit in development, especially in areas of social communication and social interaction (White et al., 2007). The lack of engagement (or joint attention) that is commonly observed among children with autism hinders them from sustaining their attention on one play activity or item together with someone else.

c) Deficit in social skills

A successful group play requires players to acquire a certain level of fluency in multiple social skills, including the ability to understand and follow instructions, identifying intention and emotion, abiding social rules of turn-taking and sharing, and so on. As an area that most autistic children struggle in, the prerequisite of social skills increases the challenge of peer play for kids with autism. Other than that, some children with autism find it difficult to engage in imaginative or pretend play, where social imagination and extensive executive functioning skills are required. All of these challenges can sound a bit too much to combat all at once, hence this is where sibling play comes in handy.

Benefits of Sibling Play 

In spite of all the challenges children with autism face in playing with others, sibling play is an effective, conducive and generalized way of teaching them the necessary skills needed to navigate in this world that possibly hold concepts that are largely foreign to them. 

a) Generalization of skills

Sibling play is a chance for children with autism to practice and generalize their learnt skill with another individual. This is applicable to a whole range of skills including engagement, attention, communication, language, play and social skills. Other than providing the platform to practice skills, sibling play can be a great introduction to playing and getting along with others, an avenue to learn the expectations and rules of playing with others. 

b) Teaches children with autism that playing with others is fun!

Most importantly, sibling play paves the opportunity for children with autism to understand and realize that playing and interacting with others are fun! It is definitely a milestone achieved when our kiddos start looking forward to and enjoy sibling play, and it is a magical moment to witness the beginning of sibling bonds that last a lifetime.

c) Support for children with siblings with autism

Furthermore, sibling play also helps children that have siblings diagnosed with autism. By encouraging them to interact and play together, sibling play enables children to learn more insights about their siblings and autism, helping them to understand their siblings better when interacting or playing with them. 

A well-guided sibling play helps develop children’s empathy and social skills, where they can learn about mediating the differences between people. Having the exposure and practice in the early stages of life to play and interact with their autistic sibling may help in fostering the sense of responsibility and gaining various skills including social skills and problem solving skills. 

Other than that, sibling play promotes sibling bonding and encourages positive sibling relationships in families with children with autism. Sibling play includes the typical developing children into the journey of understanding and guiding their autistic sibling, preventing situations and feelings of neglect or lack of attention on siblings of autistic kids. 

Carrying out a Successful Sibling Play

Note: If your child does not have a sibling, the following can be applied for peer plays as well!

The goal of sibling play varies depending on the needs of the family and the children. In order for sibling play to be a successful and positive experience, multiple strategies and ideas can be implemented while you plan for sibling play at home. 

1. Skills of the children

When identifying the type of play activities, it is important to consider the skills of both your children. 

According to the developmental milestones of play by Parten (1932), after the unoccupied and solitary play stages, children typically reach the spectator/onlooker stage at 2 years of age, and start playing alongside other children (parallel play) between 2 to 3 years old. Associative play starts at around 3 years old,  when children engage in similar play activities or share certain tools, for example, building sandcastles in a sandpit. Lastly, children engage in cooperative play at around 4 years old, where play activities get more complex and rule-based, and they need to work together to complete or achieve the goal of the play activity. Examples of cooperative play include completing a puzzle together, treasure hunt, hide and seek, football, etc. 

2. Customization of the play activities

One important element that contributes to the success of sibling play is to customize your play activity according to your children’s skill level, and always start from the stage where your children can be successful. For instance, if your children struggle in sharing or working together, start with associative play where they only need to share one tool, and gradually build up their rapport and skills from there. Keep in mind that reward and reinforcement is essential when your children are learning how to play together. Whenever they are behaving nicely, such as tolerating each other, sharing or taking turns, celebrate and cheer them on. A big reward after they finish playing together also helps build the positive association towards sibling play. 

3. Giving predictability and setting expectations beforehand

Besides, having predictability is also crucial to ensure a successful sibling play. You can start by preparing a social story, video model and schedule. Inform both of your children about the flow of the sibling play session, rules and expectations, choices of play activities, and reward through a social story. If applicable, you can also include game/activity instructions into the social story, or show them a video model of playing the game/activity while you read the social story to them. Remember, the better they understand the rules and expectations, the higher the probability of them carrying out the sibling play independently and successfully. 

It also helps to motivate them if they know the reward they can expect if they follow the rules and behave expectedly. Having a schedule for sibling play sets a structure and is especially helpful in introducing sibling play among your children. Once sibling play becomes an established routine and they are fluent with the expectations, the use of schedule can be eliminated, where your children can engage in a fluid style of play time together.

Here are some ideas of sibling play activities and instructions for each stages of play, where you can customize according to your children’s skill levels:

ART AND CRAFT

One simple art and craft activity is painting. You can add variations into the play activity by replacing the tools (e.g. using cotton buds or vegetables to stamp, dropping paint onto salt, mixing paints of different colours, painting toilet roll/cardboard box/ceramic tiles wall).

Parallel Play– in the same room, have both of your child paint on their own with their own set of tools

Associative Play– while painting, let them share the tools (paintbrush, paint, or item to be painted-huge box, wall or large piece of paper)

Cooperative Play– have your children complete one picture together (in charge of one colour/tool each)

 

SENSORY PLAY

One popular example of sensory play would be water play, which is versatile and often a promised fun time. You can have a toy wash, scooping and pouring, sailing paper boats, or even shooting each other with water! 

Parallel play– have your children playing with toy wash (animal figurines/car wash) in their own tubs near each other.

Associative play– have water play together in the same tub, with their own toys/tools.

Cooperative play– shooting each other with water guns, or throwing each other with water balloons!

 

TOY PLAY

An example toy for sibling play would be puzzles (or lego, building blocks etc.). There are many ways to go around with puzzles, but do consider your child’s ability and customize the  play activity by balancing challenges and keeping them successful.

Parallel Play– in the same space, have your children complete their own puzzle with their own set of materials. 

Associative Play- scatter the puzzle pieces around the room and have your children find the pieces for their own puzzle.

Cooperative Play– organize a treasure hunt for the puzzle pieces of ONE puzzle set. Your children will need to find the pieces and complete the puzzle together.

(For building blocks or legos, give your children a picture of the target structure, and have them build it accordingly)

 

Under the current circumstances with the pandemic, sibling play would be the most conducive option of peer play for your children. Though the goal of sibling play may differ, ultimately, it should head towards the direction of having your children play together without much intervention from adults. A more structured sibling play with close prompting and supervision may be needed at the start, or for children that have limited abilities, however, do keep in mind on fading off in order for them to practice the skills learnt. Arguments and fights will happen as sibling play progresses, but it is important to let your children solve it among themselves, once they acquire the ability to do so. At the end of the sibling play session, debrief both children and always remember to reward and praise them on playing together. 

To learn how to support siblings of children with autism, check out our video below!

For more and information on play, please refer to the play series we launched through Autism At Home! Stay tuned and feel free to check us out at @eapmalaysia on Instagram or Facebook!

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Honey, E., Leekam, S., Turner, M., & McConachie, H. (2007). Repetitive behaviour and play in typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 37(6), 1107-1115.

Parten, M. B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3), 243.

Tsao, L. L., & Odom, S. L. (2006). Sibling-mediated social interaction intervention for young children with autism. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 26(2), 106-123.

White, S. W., Keonig, K., & Scahill, L. (2007). Social skills development in children with autism spectrum disorders: A review of the intervention research. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 37(10), 1858-1868.