autism

The sibling side effect of autism

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Siblings of children with autism probably should be watched with appropriate academic supports in place, says Laura Lee McIntyre. “Our findings are rather positive overall, but these kids should be on our radar screens,” she adds. “It has been shown that around 30 percent of siblings of autistic children have some associated difficulties in behavior, learning, or development.”

U. OREGON (US)—A new study shows that some siblings of autistic preschoolers show signs of developing hyperactivity.

The findings—published in the March issue of the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities—also support the notion that mothers of young autistic children experience more depression and stress than mothers of typically developing children.

While the impact on older siblings is not statistically significant, the trend seen in young siblings may indicate the presence of symptoms associated with broader observable autism characteristics, says Laura Lee McIntyre, a professor and director of the school psychology program at the University of Oregon.

Previous research projects have netted mixed findings, but many suggest that families dealing with autism—especially brothers and sisters of an autistic child—also experience symptoms similar to autism: widespread abnormalities of social interactions, communication, and behavior.

McIntyre compared control and experimental groups whose ages, education, and socioeconomic situations were virtually identical to determine autism’s early effects on families.

Twenty families had a preschooler (ages 2-5 years old) diagnosed with autism and a typically developing older elementary school sibling (6-10); the control group of 23 families did not have an autistic child.

Older children with diagnosed learning or mental disabilities were excluded.

“We know there are risk factors, but we don’t know if they result from having a child with autism, or if there are genetic predispositions as part of the broader autism picture,” McIntyre says.

“Are these difficulties the result of child-rearing challenges, or are they negatively impacted because of shared genetic risks?

“Our sample was very clean, and that’s good for science but not necessarily as good for generalizing our findings, but I’m confident with the results we found in this particular sample.”

Previous research projects have netted mixed findings, but many suggest that families dealing with autism—especially brothers and sisters of an autistic child—also experience symptoms similar to autism: widespread abnormalities of social interactions, communication, and behavior.

While a professor at Syracuse University in New York state McIntyre looked closely at sibling adjustments, involving social, behavioral, and academic performance as recorded by both parents and teachers.

She also studied the well-being of mothers, with an average age of 36. The median age of older siblings was 7 and most were first- or second-graders.

“Contrary to what has been found by many researchers, we found that older siblings were pretty well adjusted, with no significant differences in parent-reported or teacher-reported social skills,” says McIntyre. “These are all typically developing kids.”

Teachers, however, reported slightly more behavioral problems for the siblings of children with autism than control siblings. “There was a trend toward significance,” she says.

The problems resembled hyperactivity but not at levels generally attributed to attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

Teacher reports noted that these children exhibited slightly more fidgeting, movement, and attention problems.

“Children with siblings with autism may be experiencing some sub-clinical symptoms of hyperactivity or attention problems,” notes McIntyre.

“Parents didn’t report seeing such things at home. Teachers see these children in a more structured environment. Siblings of children with autism may be at heightened risk for developing problems, potentially over time.”

Siblings of children with autism probably should be watched with appropriate academic supports in place, she says.

“Our findings are rather positive overall, but these kids should be on our radar screens. These kids may start school okay, at least those from healthy families, but they may demonstrate difficulties over time.

“However, it has been shown that around 30 percent of siblings of autistic children have some associated difficulties in behavior, learning, or development.”

The finding that moms with children with autism were more stressed and depressed in comparison to moms of typically developing preschool children “was not surprising at all,” McIntyre says.

“That finding is robust in existing literature, so even though this sample involves highly organized, motivated and willing mothers, in comparison to other moms with two or more children, they are reporting more stress and more depression.”

Mothers of autistic children, McIntyre adds, need assistance for day-to-day child-rearing activities to give them some time to be individuals.

She is looking at interventions that support parents and help kids with their daily living skills and behavior management.

The research was partially funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

University of Oregon news: http://uonews.uoregon.edu/

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