Parks department planners, schools, healthcare providers and parents have a strong interest in creating social experiences so that young adults with developmental disabilities, chronic health conditions or other special needs can build a stable network of friends and also meet and learn to include new acquaintances. Young people in transition may also express greater interest in meeting someone of the opposite gender with whom they can share a romantic relationship.
Teens with disabilities are as influenced by media, peer pressure, and their own expectations as their mainstream classmates and neighbors. They may believe they are ready for romance but disregard the physical responses that are age appropriate and overwhelming.
Family members and staff may find that their preferences are not shared by the individual for whom they would like to find a 'significant other' or even a circle of friends. Individuals may be as uninterested in dating someone with their same diagnosis as we are in dating only those who share our eyeglass prescriptions. For those who have long term care needs, this can be a difficult perspective for their parents to accept.
Matchmaking by parents has as many pitfalls for our families as anyone. However, there are ways to make it more likely that our sons and daughters interact with peers we feel are more appropriate or likely to share lifetime relationships. Eventually they may change our perspectives on what is important.
Setting up a weekly or monthly dinner and movie night where a group of young adults sits together at a restaurant and the local multiplex (or living room) provides opportunities for individuals to get to know one another without the focus being on learning something new or competing in sports. During the summer, group picnics, dances or a weekly park date can help build new friendships.
Art or drama classes, tennis or even a computer class with shared games allow social interaction based on multiple visits in a neutral atmosphere. A series of relationship seminars with role playing in different scenarios can also be helpful to set up guidelines for appropriate social interactions with coworkers.
Creating car pools with other families of similar age young adults also helps build relationships short of girlfriend/boyfriend that can give a rear view mirror perspective on the personality and attitudes of new acquaintances. Young adults who take specialized transportation regularly may make new friends on long bus rides that develops into friendships and shared activities.
A great deal of information may be programmed about physical relationships and personal boundaries that disregard a more simple interest in having someone special in their lives. Or, we may have many conversations about romance that avoid the very real dangers of physical attraction. These are issues that concern all families, and very few individuals get through adolescence without feeling heartbreak or causing it. We all hope to reduce the risks and increase the chance of positive meaningful relationships for our sons and daughters.
Maturity, compassion and fair play may be fleeting in adolescent relationships. Young men might have a set of expectations in how they define 'girlfriend' that includes candidates being a pop star or tv/movie personality. Prospective real life girlfriends might need to appreciate movies, TV shows and personalities, music stars or celebrities from Disney network, and again, the reverse is true. Young women may have a crush on one young man one month and another the next, and vice versa.
Parents are often appropriately supportive and controlling with their teenage family members with what seems like excessively dramatic or disastrous results each week. We need to invent new ways to relate to our sons and daughters while they stroll through the mine field of relationships and develop skills that they will use as adults in the world.
Local advocacy and support groups may have already instigated social opportunities for teens and young adults that can be used as a model or integrated with new members. Few of us plan to have our sons and daughters spend most of their social time with people paid to be there. Friendship and other relationships are the better options for all of us.
Browse at your local bookstore, public library or online retailer for books like: Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They're Really Saying or Teaching Children/ Teens with Down Syndrome/ Other Developmental Disabilities about Their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality
We Want Respect: Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Address Respect in Research
10 Misconceptions about Sex and Disability