Providing all children in the family the support they need to thrive
by Nick Katalifos
In my roles as a fellow parent, educator and advocate, I have spoken with many families about the challenge of raising our children when one has received a diagnosis that becomes the focus of the family, and how to provide balance amongst siblings.
Our journey began when my son Manoli, now 21, was one-and-a-half years old. We noticed that he wasn’t meeting certain developmental milestones in comparison to other kids his age, and especially to that of his big sister, Anna.
We ultimately received a diagnosis of autism two years later. It was good to get the diagnosis so that we could begin to formulate a plan of action. My son’s needs were severe, for lack of a better term, and we began to search for support and the best pedagogical path for him. While my wife Mary, an educational consultant, and I know the educational system well, it was still a very difficult time.
When a child is first diagnosed, the entire focus of the family falls upon that particular child, and this can become an issue for siblings. We wanted to keep things as “normal” as possible so that both of our children could reach their potential. Our solution was to give each of our kids separate alone time with both of their parents.
Manoli has gone through Giant Steps School where he is thriving with the best of both worlds – specialized classrooms where he receives extra help and integration into neurotypical classrooms two days a week.
Anna, who was seven when her brother was diagnosed, has embraced her role as Manoli’s big sister. She understood early on that she would take on a sibling-caregivers role. She has become a sibling advocate, often defending his rights or standing up for him when he is misunderstood, either when describing his condition and challenges to his teachers or doctors, or even to friends.
While this role has been a challenge for Anna, especially when she is trying to navigate her own understanding of what her brother experiences, her sibling relationship has clearly had a positive influence on her. Anna is now working on a Master of Science and Neuroscience at McGill University, with the goal of becoming a neuropsychologist. Her research focuses on neurodevelopmental disabilities and coping during the pandemic, examining if policies established during the pandemic actually aligned with the family’s needs.
We continue our journey with great optimism for our children’s futures. We couldn’t be more proud of them!
Nick Katalifos is the director general of the English Montreal School Board, board member of the Transforming Autism Care Consortium and special advisor to Inspirations.