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Mothers Grapple With Autism's Impact On Siblings

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Mom Shelly McLaughlin of Bel Air, Md. works for an organization called Pathfinders for Autism.  She helps train police and other officials on how to interact with people with the disorder.
Tara Boyle
Mom Shelly McLaughlin of Bel Air, Md. works for an organization called Pathfinders for Autism. She helps train police and other officials on how to interact with people with the disorder.

In the backyard of their Bel Air, Md. home, Hunter and Kyla McLaughlin are bouncing on their trampoline, blowing off steam. Their mom, Shelly, says these siblings are best friends.

"They're a year apart, and in some ways they're almost like twins," she says.

But in some ways, this brother and sister have been through much more than many siblings. Hunter is 11 and has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. For years, that diagnosis impacted every dimension of the family.

"He was very impulsive as a younger child, and if it came to mind, he just reacted and did it," says Shelly McLaughlin.

If they were out in public, like at the grocery store, that impulsiveness could be a big problem.

"He would take off," she says. "I would be in the checkout line, [and] he would bolt out the door into the parking lot, and he was not coming back unless I physically went and grabbed him."

McLaughlin, a single mom, knew how stressful this was for her. But it was only recently that she started to realize how autism has affected Kyla.

Learning compassion at the young age

"There are times where she's like another mommy to him," says McLaughlin. "You know, I remember times where he was having meltdowns, and he would just trash his room, and then when he was calm I would go in and talk to him, and Kyla would go in and start picking things up in his room."

McLaughlin says these experiences have made her daughter a more compassionate person. But being a sibling of a child with autism sometimes meant Kyla had to fight for her mom's attention.

"In a way she almost got stuck developmentally, in that during those critical developmental periods, I couldn't give her the attention she needed because I was so busy trying to deal with the daily crises that were going with Hunter and his explosions and his meltdowns and his running away," she says.

McLaughlin says slowly, over time, things have gotten easier. These days, Hunter and Kyla like to cook together and make movies on Hunter's iPad.

Adapting to a hectic life

The fact that McLaughlin's family life is calming down a bit makes a lot of sense to Kathleen Atmore, a developmental neuropsychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children's National Medical Center.

Atmore is also a mom. She has four children, including a set of twin boys. One of the twins was diagnosed with autism at 18 months.

"My son with autism would have just a lot of trouble handling frustration," she says. "I think that was the first thing I saw... even his cry was different."

Atmore knows how all-consuming autism can be for parents and kids. But now that her sons are in their teens, she also has a longer-term perspective to share with families just starting on this path.

"I have gone from the terrified mother to the capable professional in one day," she says. "And I think that experience has helped me understand that every difficult period evolves into something else that might, you know, still be challenging. But it gets better."

Atmore says she advises parents to carve out one hour, one evening a week for each child in the family. She follows this practice with her own kids.

"It's more than one hour now," she says. "It's usually between 8:00 and 10:00, that I just force myself to sit down. It's really been hugely helpful to simply sit down."

Spreading the attention

Twenty-five miles from Kathleen Atmore's D.C. office, Woodbridge, Va. resident Katherine Walker has been working to find a similar sort of equilibrium with her own children.

Her son Adam is on the autism spectrum — his diagnosis is "pervasive developmental delay not otherwise specified." Walker says she started noticing something was wrong when Adam was 18 months old.

For years, Walker devoted all her energy to Adam's medical care and therapy — and her daughters, twins Sophia and Miriam, had to come along for the ride.

"Part of their childhood was definitely stolen because they had to grow up a lot faster than children who don't deal with disability in the family."

Walker says all that intensive focus has paid off for Adam. But now it's time to bring more balance into her daughters' lives

[Music: "Mother" by Yann Tiersen from Good Bye Lenin!]


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