Sibling Double Standards And Kids With Special Needs: “It’s Not Fair!”

April is Autism Awareness Month, and I’m turning over the blog to amazing parent bloggers who have kids with autism. Today’s guest post is from Jana Banin of I Hate Your Kids (And Other Things Autism Parents Won’t Say Out Loud). Jana, a magazine writer, is mom to Benjamin, 8, who has autism, Zack, 6, and Ayla, 2.

“It’s not fair!” Like many six-year-olds, my son Zack utters this phrase at a deafeningly frequent rate. The thing is, most of the time he’s actually right. Spend a couple of hours in our house and it’s easy to see why. Here, a few examples from a typical evening.

5:00 pm: Zack does homework while Benjamin, his 8-year-old brother, is sprawled out on the sofa watching TV.

5:45 pm: If he’s racked up enough points on his behavior chart, Zack is allowed a timed session on the iPad. Benjamin, on the other hand, has had constant, unlimited access to the thing from the moment we walked in the door.

6:30 pm: Zack would not be eating dessert if he hadn’t tacked a “please” onto his request, while all Benjamin had to say is “I want cookie.”

6:32: While Zack, with the focus and precision of a surgeon, is busy turning two Oreos into one giant Oreo, Benjamin swipes a piece of his project. Zack receives a replacement cookie, but Benjamin gets off scott free.

6:35: Benjamin washes the treats down with a swig from his baby sister’s sippy cup. When Zack tries to do the same thing I stop him. Serious whining about the injustice of this ensues, and I sternly tell Zack to move on.

No, I did not mistake Cinderella for a parenting manual. I treat my children differently simply because they are two very different kids. Zack is a typically developing kindergartner who has to follow the rules And then there’s Benjamin, who has autism. The rules generally just don’t apply to him.

* Benjamin works crazy hard in school and with his home therapists, but he isn’t in a place academically where he’s coming home with very many worksheets or projects.

* Left to his own devices Benjamin would spend his down time searching for things to eat and/or destroy. We’d much prefer he hang out in front of a screen—especially if that means playing educational, age-appropriate games on the iPad.

* Benjamin is, miraculously, finally verbal enough to ask for what he wants. For now that’s good enough for us. The pleases and thank yous will come soon, I’m sure.

* And punishment, well, that’s a tricky one. We are fairly certain that when Benjamin, say, wakes up at 4 in the morning and tears through a box of brownie mix he knows he’s done something wrong. But for whatever reason—maybe because his social deficits impede him from caring about what we think, or because his impulses are so hard to control—punishing him just doesn’t work. He’d do the exact same thing 20 minutes later if he knew he could get away with it again. We’re working with his therapists on coming up with modes of discipline that will be effective and meaningful to him, but it’s still a work in progress.

Sometimes I feel incredibly guilty about my double standard parenting, and other times I’m just too busy trying to get through the day to give it much thought. Overall, though, I’m sort of happy this is the way it is for Zack.

My kid is learning earlier than most of his peers that life isn’t fair–and he’s developing the tools to cope with and be okay with that. More importantly, he’s also learning life is also unfair for kids with special needs. He knows how hard it is for Benjamin to express himself, make friends, and learn things that come naturally to most children. In other words, Zack is already more understanding and empathetic than a lot of adults out there.

Of course, autism doesn’t always inform my parenting decisions.

“How come Benjamin is downstairs?” Zack asked as I tucked him into bed the other night. “Why doesn’t he have to go to bed at 7:45 like me? It’s not faaaiiiiiir!”

Zack was wrong–it was fair, and I was thrilled to tell him why.

“Benjamin’s older than you. When you’re 8 you’ll get to stay up later too.” And that was that.

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  1. by Jennie B

    On April 13, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I recently went to seminar on parenting siblings of kids with special needs. One of the themes we kept coming back to was “fair does not mean equal.” In a family, we get according to our need and give according to our ability. Of course, this is so hard for kids to understand – but they will.

    We are in a similar situation as you with one kid on the spectrum and one typical kid. Although now it seems that my son gets all the attention, I know it will work both ways. There will be things my daughter will be able to do that my son won’t, and that isn’t fair either.

  2. by Momma2A&B

    On April 20, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I have 2 sone who are both on the ASD,my elder one Andrew is 8 and is in a special ed class and recives intesive speech,OT,PT and AT.My younger son Brandon who is 6 is in a genreal ed class has an aide and recives speech and OT.They do have there squablles ussaley over that 1 got to choose dinner,get a new toy or ride in the car with Dad but we always say Different people get different things and there is no 1 fair.