Remember your first crush? Your first “special someone”? Just about everyone struggles to some extent the first time they have a crush on another person. As exciting and fun as it is, navigating a romantic relationship for the first time can be difficult, complicated, and frustrating. This is true for all young people – if they are typically developing or if they have autism or other special needs.
The experiences and struggles of people with disabilities, just like all other people, can vary dramatically. Similarly, the added difficulty of managing relationships or having a crush on another person will vary depending on each person’s strengths and weaknesses.
How can parents of young people with special needs help their children deal with the exciting and sometimes overwhelming feelings they are experiencing?
The following are some common considerations and a few tips and tricks to help you help your child navigate a crush or a new relationship. (Please note that you may need to modify some of these suggestions depending upon your child’s abilities in language and communication.)
Talk ahead of time
Teach ahead of time
Before your child experiences a crush or a relationship, talk to her (or him) about anything and everything related. For example: What is safe and appropriate? How do you manage people on the Internet? What do different relationships look like (e.g., acquaintance vs. family vs. partner)? What should you look for in a partner?
There are so many skills required to deal with a crush or manage a relationship. You may need to teach your child some new skills to enable her to communicate with her crush appropriately, understand boundaries, identify and tolerate rejection, and ensure a safe experience.
Keep the lines of communication open with your child and with her other caregivers. Make sure she has an appropriate person she is comfortable talking to about how she feels. Giving your child an outlet in the form of a trusted confidant will help you gauge how she is managing the relationship or feelings. You can also enlist the help of staff members at your child’s school who observe her interactions with peers on a daily basis. This will help you – and them – determine when your child may need assistance.
Consider communication preferences
Some people with disabilities have significant communication difficulties. There is more than one way to keep the lines of communication open. Handwriting in a journal, texting, e-mailing, or planning face-to-face time are just a few examples of different ways you can communicate with your child about the challenges of a new relationship.
Take care of yourself
As a parent, watching your child become upset can be difficult even when you are aware it’s a typical experience. Be sure to take time to care for yourself as you navigate the line of when to step back and let things play out and when to intervene
Keep your child’s strengths and weaknesses in mind, and remember that depending on her challenges, it could take time to improve upon those weaknesses. Additionally, your child may require explicit instruction presented in different ways over time to ensure that she learns what she needs to know to be safe and happy.
Another important consideration is that just because a person can memorize and repeat a rule it does not mean that she will follow it when she find herself in a given situation. When it comes to safety and interpersonal skills, it is common that a child may need both instruction about the rules and
practice using them.
The above suggestions represent a generic presentation of some possible concerns that may arise when your child develops her first crush or enters into her first romantic relationship. While healthcare curriculum in school will certainly cover a portion of this material, there is a chance that your child will need more support if she regularly receives additional supports. If she attends social skills groups, that would be a great time to practice some of the skills she may need to successfully navigate this new and exciting experience.
By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA LABA
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601.