their child’s educational program in relation to a chronic disability and that they will need to continue to cope in the face of unrelenting demands. Family needs also vary according to the severity of the child’s autistic disorder. Younger children and those who are less impaired have a better prognosis than those who are older or have very severe autism. It is useful for school personnel to be sensitive to these different problems and to work closely with parents to provide family support and help them find the resources that fit the developmental needs of the child and the family as whole.
Many families benefit from the availability of both formal and informal social support to handle the complex demands in their lives. A family-centered approach emphasizes addressing the needs and desires of individual families, rather than providing predefined services. This philosophy is often practiced in other fields within early childhood special education and has been applied implicitly to the field of autism. Potential sources of support include classroom teachers; IEP team members, including representatives of the local education authority (LEA); pediatricians; and other professionals who evaluate and treat children with autism. Although the schools can provide a number of formal supports to families of children with autism, there are also other valuable resources for parents to access. These informal supports are found through networking with other parents, membership in support groups, and from families and neighbors. Bristol (1987) found a positive relationship between adequacy of social support, the use of active coping behaviors, and family adaptation for parents of children enrolled in the TEACCH program. Lack of financial resources and of access to information can be significant barriers to families seeking needed support.
In serving families, it is important not to overlook siblings, whose lives can be disrupted in serious ways, but who also benefit from their brothers or sisters with autism as well (Konidaris, 1997). These children experience more feelings of sadness and worry than do other children, although for the most part these differences do not reflect significant psychopathology (e.g., Rodrigue et al., 1993). Brothers and sisters need support as they come to understand autism and its impact on a sibling who has the disorder, and these needs change over time (Glasberg, 2000). Often siblings will be enrolled at the same school: a sensitive teacher can help a child respond to questions about a sibling’s autism and be alert to the impact on the child’s peer relationships of having a brother or sister who is markedly different from most other children in the school. The LEA can offer sibling support groups to provide factual information, teach play skills, and provide peer group support for brothers or sisters (Celiberti and Harris, 1993; Lobato, 1990; McHale and Harris, 1992).
Research on the genetics of autism suggests that siblings are at a greater risk for having autism or a related milder disorder than are other