Siblings of children with autism connect with others at 'Sibshops'

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 | 10:39 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Siblings of children with autism have the opportunity to meet other children facing similar situations at two upcoming “Sibshops.”

Sibshops are a time to celebrate siblings of children with special needs, help siblings form friendships with other children like themselves and show the sibling that they are not alone in their concerns, said Cheryl Unterschutz, senior information specialist for MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The Thompson Center is hosting the events with support from the Friends of the Thompson Center and Boone County Family Resources.

If you go

What: Sibshops for the siblings ages 6 to 16 of children with disabilities

When: From 5 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21 and from 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 31

Where: MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 300 Portland St. 

Cost: Free, but children must register in advance to attend. Registration forms are available on the Web site,, or by calling Stephanie Scott at 884-0664. For general questions about the events, call Susan Austin at 884-5934.

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Unterschutz said the Sibshops are easygoing recreational meetings, rather than therapeutic sessions with formal lectures.

“It’s an opportunity for the kids to be kids and to have fun in a nonthreatening environment,” Unterschutz said. “It’s also an opportunity to build a lifelong connection.”

Unterschutz explained that the sibling and the child with the disorder often outlive their parents. Sometimes, the sibling takes over the parent’s role of caring for the child. The sibling can benefit from having a friend in a similar life situation to get support from and communicate with.

One Sibshop is designed for children ages 6 to 12, and the other Sibshop is for children ages 10 to 16. Both programs are available for children who have a brother or sister with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as brain injuries, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Some of the planned activities at the Sibshop for younger children include arts and crafts, cooking and eating food, playing games and singing songs, said Susan Austin, a nurse with the Family Resource Service at the Thompson Center who is co-facilitating the Sibshop for the 6- to 12-year-olds.

The activities at the Sibshop for the older children will focus more on group discussions and what it means to have a sibling with a special need, Austin said.

Several people have already signed up to attend the Sibshops on Oct. 21 for the older children and Oct. 31 for the younger ones, Austin said. There is a limit of 20 participants for the Oct. 31 Sibshop and a smaller limit for the Sibshop on Oct. 21. However, if registration is low, both groups will meet on Oct. 31, Unterschutz said.

The siblings will still be split into a younger group and an older group because the older children tend to be more interested in talking about common concerns such as isolation, a lack of adult attention and confusion about their brother or sister’s disability, while the younger children tend to respond better to hands-on activities, Unterschutz said.

The Thompson Center began hosting the Sibshops in 2006, said Joel Harris, a licensed clinical social worker who is a counselor at Benton Elementary School. Harris has facilitated Sibshops with Lisa Fortner, a counselor at Russell Boulevard Elementary School, since 2006. Harris and Fortner remain involved with the program, but due to time constraints, serve more as consultants who will co-facilitate two or three Sibshops per year with the Thompson Center staff.

“Children have had a great time at the Sibshops,” Harris said. “They can come and express whatever they need to in order to deal with their struggles and relate to other kids who know exactly how they feel."

The Sibshop program was started in 1982 by Don Meyer, Greg Schell and several colleagues at the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit in Seattle. More than 200 local Sibshop programs now exist worldwide, according to the Sibshops Web site.

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