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Lina Fancy

After 12 years as the director of Jumpstart, the parent coaching program at the Autism Center of Northern California, Lina Fancy MSc. has launched LF Autism CA, focusing on holistic family support. She received her MFT at the Dominican University of California after 20 years of working with developmental disabilities. Lina is looking to eventually incorporate psychotherapeutic support for couples, siblings, and families who are navigating this journey. In the interview, Lina discusses the effect of a child being neurodivergent within the family system, focussing on the siblings. Lina discusses the common experiences of siblings and how their parents can best support them. 

Interview 7/5/23

Background: I have been in autism since 1999, I started doing in-home behavioral support and then switched to more of a consultative basis, and then went into Parent and Family coaching. Because I have done so much work in the family system, the siblings have been involved from kind of coming and going, when in the home setting, being involved in home sessions, if there is any work being done in the home, they've been brought into my parent coaching, family coaching in terms of facilitating interaction with a sibling and a child who is neurodiverse, especially when we're talking about play development. I went back after working with autism for many years, 15 plus years to get my MFT. And the reason I did that is because my passion is actually supporting the whole family, which includes parents, as well as siblings. So I'm currently getting my licensure. My goal is to provide psychotherapy for parents and siblings and provide direct service and coaching for a child who is neurodiverse.


What common experiences do the siblings often encounter during childhood?


This is multifaceted for me, because it's not just the sibling, if we look at the family in general. And there are so many implications. First of all, for parents, having a child who is neurodiverse represents one of the highest levels of stress for parents of any other psychological disorder or physiological disease. So if that's autism-specific, I'm generalizing a little bit to neurodiversity. This stress is multifaceted. The stress is due to not having a focus of control and not understanding how to help your child. This stress comes from differing understandings of the diagnosis and how you want to treat the diagnosis for each parent, if there is a two-parent family system. If it's a single-family system, all of the stressors are exacerbated by single parenting. And this stress can come from the increased financial implications of having a child who's neurodiverse. And all of these cumulatively result in parents who are much more susceptible to mental health issues themselves, such as depression or anxiety. So if we look at that within the family system this is going to impact also siblings, when parents are struggling, whether it's mental health or financial, as well as socially in the community in regards to how accepted neurodiversity is in the certain environment that they live in. So if we're talking about the impact for siblings, there is this big general impact of being in a family system that is experiencing these kinds of stressors, as well as then also a sibling experiencing conflicting experiences of wanting to be there to provide support and worrying about their sibling. And also the other side of the coin, there are many siblings who experience shame or embarrassment or a certain isolation from the community, because they have difficulty explaining or understanding even themselves what's happening in their family system or with their sibling.


Are there any common traits, both positive and negative, that you've noticed or that the siblings may gain from these experiences?


I think in general, what I've heard from siblings, and what I've read in some research is that there is a level of empathy and compassion. When you have a sibling who's developmentally disabled, older, or disabled in general, there is just an additional layer of empathy and understanding from having to care for someone perhaps starting at a very young age. With that increased compassion or empathy or need to care, there could be early present parentification of providing care and this can lead to anxiety and depression for the siblings. And so I think on the positive side, there is compassion, empathy, and the understanding and acceptance of individuals who may have challenges. On the negative side, you know, this could result in mental health issues for the siblings alone, because it definitely is added stressors, and a heavier load to carry at a younger age.


How may the sibling relationship be affected by one’s challenges, neurodivergence, etc.? 


I think there are so many ways, especially because I work with younger kids. And so typically, the siblings are quite young themselves. I think the difficulty with that is the normative sibling relationship where there is interaction and play development, and communication becomes delayed. It’s impacted by the child who is perhaps neurodiverse, or autistic, or intellectually delayed. So those natural sibling play interactions when children are very young, are often not reciprocated. And there's no understanding of that when children are young, why isn't my sibling playing with me? Why doesn't he talk to me? Why doesn't she listen to me? Why does she keep ruining my stuff? I think from a young age, it disrupts normative sibling interactions and relationships. And perhaps that comes together at an older age when siblings are able to understand that there are different developmental styles occurring and they understand what that is and are able to connect on a different level.


Are there any struggles that the siblings then may face or carry into adulthood?


I think that there is, back to my point of that propensity, perhaps depression or anxiety that may come on with increased responsibility at a young age. Perhaps some self-parentification at a young age, and perhaps even disrupted attachment due to parents incurring such stressors, struggles, and mental health issues themselves. We definitely see some of those issues continue in adulthood. I believe heavily that the parents and any siblings should receive therapeutic services, just like any early intervention services that are provided. I think the family needs to be front-loaded with therapeutic services for parents and as well for siblings. So we can counteract those early situations or disrupted attachments that can lead to long-term issues coming into adulthood. I think the other heaviness that siblings may feel, and this is something that is very daunting for parents, it’s the question of what is my child going to do when I'm gone? And I can't advocate for them, and I can't get them the support they need. Well, this naturally then falls on to siblings, who are going to be responsible. I think there's a heaviness that's associated. 


What advice would you give the siblings themselves who are trying to navigate their situation both during childhood and afterward?


I would absolutely have siblings start working with a psychotherapist, like an MFT. Or a social worker that is either very experienced in neurodiversity themselves or who has experience in attachment reparation and working with depression and anxiety. The earlier siblings can get the support that they need, the better off for the family system, and as well for their longevity.

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