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Part of the puzzle: Med students with autistic siblings speak out

As future DOs, we offer a unique perspective on caring for the families of autistic children.

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Taiwo T. Ajumobi, OMS II; Sharmin Asha, OMS I; Sarah Aziz, OMS I; and Ryan Barnes, OMS II. Ajumobi, Asha and Barnes have siblings with autism. Aziz has a cousin who has autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in 68 children is living with autism. As osteopathic medical students, we understand the vitally important role physicians play in helping autistic patients grow, learn and thrive.

As the siblings and the cousin of autistic children, we bring a unique perspective to our role as future DOs. We’ve experienced the significant impact of autism on the mental and emotional welfare of our families. Research shows that siblings of autistic children, in particular, can experience complex feelings of guilt, joy, frustration and stress that extend well into adulthood.

Because of our experiences, we know that when one family member has a major health condition, the rest of the family is profoundly affected. As future physicians, we plan to use this insight to treat patients—and their family members—holistically. Here are a few takeaways for physicians treating siblings of autistic children:

  1. We want to talk about it.
    Taiwo Ajumobi, OMS II: I was 25 years old before a physician acknowledged that my twin sister’s autism affected me, too. I wish someone in the medical profession had talked to me about it sooner. A non-autistic child’s understanding of their sibling can play an important role in helping their family cope with autism. Physicians should understand that we’re part of the autism puzzle too.
  2. Sharmin Asha, OMS I (left), Ryan Barnes, OMS II, Taiwo Ajumobi, OMS II, and Sarah Aziz, OMS I (right), attend the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey. (Image provided by the authors)
  3. We want to help.
    Sharmin Asha, OMS I: We love our autistic siblings and want to learn how to best support them. Since my parents are originally from Bangladesh, I acted as a translator during my younger brother’s medical appointments. I also participated in his treatment regime and served as his personal chaperone on class field trips. Physicians should encourage us to assist our parents and siblings, yet remind us to take care of ourselves so we don’t become overwhelmed.
  4. We need resources.
    Ryan Barnes, OMS II: When parents struggle to obtain services for an autistic child, it can take a toll on the whole family. My family was lucky to find resources that helped, including The Arc, an organization offering advocacy services for patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Other resources we all have found to be helpful include:

  • Websites: Sibling Support Project, Autism Speaks, Autism Society
  • Movies: Tru Confessions, The Black Balloon, Miracle Run
  • Books: Autism and Me: Sibling Stories; Siblings of Children With Autism: A Guide for Families; My Brother Charlie; Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express

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