The relationship between siblings is, for most people, the longest they will ever enjoy. It is fundamental for many of us, but especially for children, who live together regularly with their brother or sister, and where the fraternal relationship is part of daily life, of play and leisure, of learning basic skills, of emotional development, of many other things. Throughout life that relationship between siblings provides company, affection, support and opportunities to learn. For all these reasons, this relationship has a strong impact on behavioral adjustments and psychosocial development.
Research in this field tends to move between two opposing frameworks. The first considers that disability generates a deficit around it and assumes that the presence of the disabled sibling is a risk factor for the healthy development of the normotypical child. Work within this theoretical framework has found that typical siblings of a child with a developmental disorder are at somewhat greater risk of adjustment problems and worse outcomes than similar children with normal siblings.
The second theoretical framework suggests that having a sibling with a disability has a positive impact on the psychosocial development of a normotypical child through maturation that is linked to exposure to adverse circumstances. Normotypical children who help their siblings do not experience negative consequences in relation to other children of the same age. Furthermore, normotypical children who help with the physical care of their siblings every day experience it as having more responsibility. In general, research suggests that having a sibling with a disability results in greater variability in the child’s development, as its effects can be very diverse. Therefore, the characteristics of that relationship between siblings and how it ends up being positive or negative is a relevant topic of research, we need to know more in order to better support both the sibling with a disability and the neurotypical sibling.
A study by researchers from Tel Aviv University and Haifa University has found 1 that the relationship between siblings when one has an intellectual disability is more positive than between two neurotypical siblings. The relationship has been termed “disability by association” and intellectual disability is a subcategory within a range of developmental disorders where there are limitations in intellectual functioning and difficulties in adaptive behavior. The starting point is that the presence of a child with a disability in the family places special demands on all family members, including neurotypical siblings, but even when these needs exist, they are often accompanied by positive contributions in both the short and long term.
The researchers used drawings and questionnaires to examine the relationship between various pairs of children and published their study in Research in Developmental Disabilities (1). Through this research the Israeli research group was able to see that sibling relationships in which one sibling had a disability showed more support than if the two siblings were neurotypical. Specifically, they found that children who had siblings with disabilities scored higher in empathy, teaching, and closeness and scored lower in conflict and rivalry compared to siblings where both had typical development.
Until now, research on how having a sibling with a disability affected siblings has focused on social-emotional and behavioral issues, and the results have been very heterogeneous. Some of these studies showed that having a sibling with a disability generated greater variability in behavior and adjustment processes in the neurotypical sibling. However, according to the authors of this study, the inner world of the children had not been entered, something that could only be accessed through their own expression through art or their own reports, regardless of the intervention of the parents.
The scientists assessed 59 children between the ages of 8 and 11, half with a neurotypically developing sibling (n=31) and the other half (n=28) with a sibling with an intellectual disability. In addition to the siblings, the mothers of both groups also filled out a questionnaire where they assessed the quality of the relationship between both siblings. The researchers were based on the premise that artistic creativity allows inner content to emerge when expressed visually and that the children’s own stories had added value in studies that measure sibling relationships, especially in areas where parents may have a less clear picture.
Both groups of typically developing children, those with a disabled sibling and those without, were asked to draw pictures of themselves and their sibling. A group of art therapists then used a list of criteria to rate these drawings based on aspects such as the physical distance between the two figures, the presence or absence of a parent in the drawing, the amount of detail present in both his self-portrait and his sibling’s representation, and the amount of support given to the sibling in the drawing. The children were then asked to complete the Sibling Relationship Questionnaire, a questionnaire that allows them to assess their feelings of closeness, domination, conflict and rivalry in relation to their sibling.
The study had several limitations. 1) The sample size was relatively small. 2) The mothers were the only sources when it came to knowing the level of adjustment among the children. 3) The results would have been different if the children gave their own version of themselves, their sibling and their relationship to each other. 4) There was no information about the adaptive functioning and behavioral characteristics of siblings with intellectual disabilities. 5) There was a lack of information about the impact of the normotypical sibling on the behavioral problems of the sibling with disability and about the positive and negative aspects of the relationship between the two siblings. 6) The study did not include the children’s interpretations of their own drawings. It would be appropriate in future studies to ask the children to draw themselves and at the same time provide a qualitative narrative about the drawing process, the product itself and its personal meaning.
The result of the study showed that having one family member with a disability made the rest, including children with neurotypical development, more attentive to the needs of others. The researchers hope that the study will serve as a basis for future research into tools based on artistic expression that help generate and document children’s subjective experience.