Study Shows How Children Benefit from Intellectually Disabled Siblings

January 19, 2020

Source: Times of Israel 


Siblings of intellectually disabled children are more empathetic, better at teaching and enjoy better relationships with their siblings, according to a new Israeli study.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa queried mothers and children about their sibling relationships using artwork and questionnaires. They studied “typically developed” children’s relationships with their disabled and non-disabled siblings.

“Having a child with a disability in a family places unique demands on all family members, including typically developing siblings,” Tel Aviv University professor Anat Zaidman-Zait said in a statement. “Although challenges exist, they are often accompanied by both short- and long-term positive contributions.”

“We found that children with siblings with intellectual disabilities scored higher on empathy, teaching and closeness and scored lower on conflict and rivalry than those with typically developing siblings,” Zaidman-Zait said.

The paper, titled “The quality of the relationship between typically developing children and their siblings with and without intellectual disability: Insights from children’s drawings”, was published this month in the peer-reviewed medical journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.

The authors of the new study believe the research is the first of its kind, combining nonverbal reports, such as artwork, from children, with verbal reports from parents and children to examine this kind of sibling relationship.

The researchers evaluated 61 children aged 8-13, around half of whom had typically developed siblings, and half with intellectually disabled siblings. At this stage in “middle childhood,” children have more contact with their disabled siblings and a more mature understanding of their disabilities, the authors said.

A control group with similar characteristics, but no disabled children in the family, went through the same research process. The only significant difference between the two groups was that mothers of children with disabilities had less college education on average, which was controlled for in the analysis.

The researchers asked the children to draw themselves alongside their siblings with colored pencils, then had licensed art therapists score the illustrations using several criteria, including: the distance on paper between the two figures; the location of figures on the page; evidence of support or assistance between the figures; the size of the figures; the presence or absence of a parent in the picture; and the amount of detail put into each figure.

Three evaluators, all expert art therapists with experience analyzing drawings, analyzed the pictures without any knowledge of whether the children belonged to the control group or the group with disabled siblings.

The authors believe questionnaires are less revealing than pictures, since children may want to respond to questions in a socially acceptable manner and may not be aware of some aspects of their inner worlds, which can come out through nonverbal communication.

The children then answered a questionnaire aimed at evaluating their feelings of closeness, dominance, conflict and rivalry toward their siblings.

The mothers answered questions about the children’s relationships with their siblings and their social-emotional adjustment, with topics including sympathy, jealousy, anger, avoidance, teaching and companionship.

Based on the drawings and the questionnaires answered by the children and mothers, the researchers determined that children whose siblings have intellectual disabilities scored higher on empathy, teaching and closeness in their relationships, and lower on conflict and rivalry. The findings suggested higher levels of obligation to support their disabled siblings and dedication to the relationship, highlighting the increased caregiving demands on the family, the researchers said.

There were no significant differences found between the two groups relating to the children’s individual social-emotional adjustment, indicating that having a disabled sibling did not have a negative impact.

Overall, the findings suggest that having a disabled child is beneficial to sibling relationships, strengthens family bonds and lessens hostility between siblings, and the “nurturing needs” of disabled children likely have a positive effect on their siblings.

Updated: Jan. 28, 2020