Physical Impacts

The physical impact of having a sibling with specific needs is something that is often overlooked. However, it is something that needs to be considered as it can have significant impact on the way a student behaves, takes on board information or feels about themselves and others around them.


We know that sleep is vital for a person to function properly. We mentioned earlier that lack of sleep can lead to a student struggling to concentrate in class and focus on their work. It can also lead to difficulties in controlling and dealing with emotions, feelings of sadness and, if sleeplessness continues over a long time, it can even lead to clinical depression. In a household with a child or adult with specific needs, siblings may not be getting the good quality sleep they need.

Disruptions can include their brother or sister:

  • Not settling down to sleep until late
  • Waking in the night and being disruptive
  • Needing medication in the middle of the night
  • Needing to be changed in the night
  • Emergency runs to the hospital for treatment
  • Nightmares, disturbing sleep for all
A bedtime scene. There is a bed in the background. In the front there is a blue character stimming by waving their hands back and forth. There are two identical characters indicating the person is pacing around. To the right is another blue character with their head in hand looking exhausted.
Repetitive behaviour such as stimming or pacing can be disruptive with others are trying to sleep.

This might be exacerbated by siblings sharing bedrooms. Try to be aware of the home circumstances and if the young person you are working with is getting enough rest.

Physical assault

Sometimes brothers and sisters bite, scratch, scream and hit. Often they are unaware they are hurting someone, such actions may be the only way they are able to communicate, sometimes it is their way of controlling their emotions, and sometimes individuals experience involuntary tics or spasms. But, deliberate or not, it will be painful for the sibling, both physically and emotionally. Others may engage in ‘stimming’, repetitive motions that may include actions that hurt oneself, such as head banging or hitting themselves. Siblings can get hurt trying to prevent a brother or sister from doing this to themselves.

Lifting and moving

It is important to understand if your students help with the care of the siblings. Lifting, dressing, pushing someone round in a wheelchair can place a physical strain on someone. Often siblings take on a caring role but they may not have been formally trained in how to move a sibling without hurting themselves. It is easy to strain your back or pull a muscle if you are trying to lift someone into bed, hold them upright while you are dressing them, or even bending down to wash someone in the bath. Such physical activity can also be tiring, contributing to the exhaustion felt if they are not getting enough sleep.

Two blue cartoon characters. One in a wheelchair, smiling and waving. The other standing behind the chair, about to hold the handles, also smiling.

Missed diagnoses

In the previous section ‘diagnosis – the impact on the family’, we describe the situation of Simeon, whose autism went undiagnosed because the family was concentrating on his sister’s cancer treatment. The same is true for any pain or wound. Sometimes a family’s perception of ‘urgent’ aches or discomfort is skewed if they are used to dealing with the pain of a child on a daily basis. Complaints by a sibling might be brushed aside as minor bumps or bruises and more serious infections or symptoms missed.

The opposite can also be true. Diagnosis of one child can lead to parents becoming extra vigilant. They might fear that any injury or complaint of pain is something more serious. This can find them racing a sibling to the doctor for minor ailments and common childhood diseases. Siblings may well learn that complaining about a headache, for example, gets them taken more seriously and attracts more attention from parents. It is worth you asking questions to find out how the family of the child in your class tackles illness at home.

Key Point

~Siblings of children with specific needs and disabilities may be facing extra physical demands at home. This may make them more tired and emotional.

~ Finding out what the situation is at home can help you better support the student

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