For many young people with disabilities, finding reciprocal, age-appropriate peer relationships at the adolescent and young adult level can be difficult, but it can and does happen. Through consistent social skills therapy over a period of 3.5 years, I was able to learn the skills to help me become more confident socially around my peers and to form successful and meaningful relationships with them. I had to learn skills such as how to have a reciprocal conversation, how to read body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, how to make eye contact, and how to discern people’s true intentions. Today, I have a small group of friends, and I am happy to say, those friendships are truly mutual and meaningful for all involved.
Even beyond friendships, the matter of love, intimacy, and romantic relationships for individuals with disabilities is possible. Love, intimacy, and romantic relationships may require direct social skills coaching to learn what types of behaviors are appropriate, when, and in what environments. It is also important to know what types of behaviors are inappropriate, what types of behaviors are safe or unsafe, how to stay safe in a relationship, and what to do if a partner or someone else ever threatens you or makes you feel unsafe.
Just as with learning about peer relationships, I have learned from several peers in my life about love and romantic relationships. Some teens and young adults with disabilities may not want to go directly to their parents or a caregiver to talk about relationships. Similar to typically developing young adults, they may choose to turn to friends, siblings, or even outlets like the internet, movies, and television to understand the ins and outs of romantic relationships and love.
Romantic Love Is not a Gauge for Fulfillment
Just because someone has a disability, it does not mean that he or she cannot understand love and does not think about it or have any interest in it. Some may, some may not. It all depends on the individual. I would caution parents on the idea that a young adult has to find a romantic partner or be in a committed relationship to be happy. Although you may find yourself wanting what is perceived as “the typical course of life” for your child, try to remember that it is okay if that does not happen. Your child can still find plenty of fulfillment in other ways. Although I have never found myself in a committed relationship, I find myself very happy and fulfilled in life with two part-time jobs, a wonderful family, great friends, a nice condo where I can have people over to hang out, the coolest dog ever (if I do say so myself) and plenty of social involvement.
It is very important that safe and appropriate behaviors are modeled and expected throughout the individual’s life, and that the young person has at least a couple of responsible, mature role models around him or her who will advocate for and model such behaviors. I can definitely say that if my parents and friends had not taken such an active interest in my life, I would not be doing nearly as well socially as I am today.
Make an Intentional Effort to Establish Meaningful Connections
Area social skills groups, support groups, or peer mentoring programs are great avenues for young adults with disabilities to connect with others and learn about social skills and relationship development. Groups and programs like these may be available in your area for teens and young adults to find reciprocal, age-appropriate peer relationships. If not, you might consider developing your own relationship-building avenues.
Special note: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many young people, with and without disabilities, to struggle with issues such as possible loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety. Social outreach is doubly difficult due to stay-at home orders and the need for social distancing. Many young people are having to get creative in how they connect with friends and significant others, Social activities which may have previously been in person prior to the pandemic, may now be held on virtual platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet.
Even though our country is going through some very unique times right now, it is very important that individuals develop and maintain meaningful social connections as a way to help them get through and process the feelings they may be experiencing. I have taken to setting up FaceTime dates with friends and family a few times a week, or even just purchasing a little something online and sending it in the mail just to make their day a little brighter. We can still make an effort to remain connected, even in unusual times like these.
Intimate Relationships and Sexual Health: A Curriculum for Teaching Adolescents/Adults with High-Functioning Autism and Other Social Challenges, Catherine Davies and Melissa Dubie. Available: Amazon.com *Please note: Even though this resource is autism-specific, the material can apply to a variety of conditions.
Sex, Sexuality, and the Autism Spectrum, Wendy Lawson. Available: amazon.com *Note: This book is also autism-specific, but is applicable for adolescents and young adults living with a wide variety of conditions.