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Having a child with a disability or a developmental delay is often a stressful experience for a family. Siblings in such families may be exposed to greater stress and challenges.

Until now, there has been little research about the positive effects of growing up with a sibling with disabilities. A new study published in Child Development, led by Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) developmental psychology expert Professor Ariel Knafo-Noam and Dr. Anat Perry, examines how growing up as a sibling of a child with disabilities may nurture empathy. This is one of the first studies to examine the possible positive effects of growing up with a sibling with a disability.

“Our findings indicate that siblings of children with disabilities may have greater cognitive empathy—that is, an understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings--which is important as cognitive empathy is key for social skills,” shared Yonat Rum, a postdoctoral researcher at HU and the University of Cambridge.

Researchers examined data from the Longitudinal Israeli Study of Twins which included 1,657 families of twins born in 2004-2005. Of these, 63 families were identified where one of the twins has a disability and the other is typically developing.

The typically developing twin siblings of children with disabilities were then compared to 404 typically developing twin siblings from the rest of the sample, on measures of cognitive and emotional empathy and pro-sociality, completed when all children were 11 years old. Participating children were administered a self-report questionnaire to assess their cognitive and emotional empathy, and a computerized task designed to assess prosocial behavior. Further, the participating children's parents completed a questionnaire to assess their children's pro-social behaviors.

The data showed that typically developing children who had a twin with disabilities scored higher in self-reported cognitive empathy than did typically developing children who did not have a special-needs twin. Contrary to predictions, no differences were found in emotional empathy and pro-sociality.

“These positive effects might be due to the specific 'advantage' of cognitive empathy to better understand their sibling with disabilities and to support the sibling relationship,” explained Ariel Knafo-Noam. The authors acknowledged the preliminary nature of the findings and called for further research in this neglected field.

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