These are words that provoke panic in parents of children with special needs. As these young people develop into late adolescence, parents and teachers confront the problem of relationships within this group We do know that even though there may be some cognitive and social delays in these students, their emotional development is similar to their non-handicapped peers. They want to be like everyone else, like the people they see on TV. They don’t want to be alone. They want to be valued by someone of the opposite sex. Same sex relationships offer unique challenges to special needs children and I will address that in a future blog post.

Unfortunately, our response to these relationships is often to deny or to try to prevent them. The results are often disastrous. When left to their own devices, these students end up putting themselves at risk, experimenting with sexual behavior.  Some become obsessed with the opposite sex or with engaging in sexual behavior, often inappropriately.  They might be punished, lectured, isolated, or shamed.

In my practice, I like to take a different approach. I like to teach them about the issue of relationships, to help them understand but also to give them some rules to follow. Since these teens have compromised understanding, I like to give them rules. They don’t have to figure anything out, they don’t have to interpret anything, they don’t have to make judgments.  They just have to follow the rule.  It is much simpler and clearer for them.  I also emphasize that if they don’t follow the rules, they clearly are not ready for a relationship.  I also point out that skipping steps is grounds for adults to intervene.

For example, I tell them that there are stages for each relationship. So if a teen is in Stage 1, they have identified someone that they are interested in and the person has indicated interest as well.  The purpose is to get to know someone and to have shared experiences. The rule at this stage is “No sexual behavior.”  You are only at Stage 1.  You are supposed to talk on the phone, go places together but nothing else.

Stage 2 means you have gotten to know this person and you have done many things together.  You have gone to Homecoming or have gone to the movies. You have had a chance to talk regularly on the phone. You know this person.  I often ask my patients to tell me about their boyfriend/girlfriend. If they can’t describe this person’s interests or likes, they stay in Stage 1.  If they have learned some things about this person, they can move to stage 2.  They are now ready to physically indicate that they are “together.”  They do this by holding hands, sitting close to each other, kissing etc., but that is all.  That is the rule. I also like to point out that there are many other ways that we show affection for someone. We may do special, thoughtful things for them, give them gifts, take their needs into account.  Learning these things is important before moving to Stage 3.

Stage 3 is for much more serious relationships. My general rule of thumb is that they have to have been together in Stages 1 and 2 for at least a year.  I tell them that this is the most difficult stage, because they now need to take each other’s needs into account. I like to work individually with the teens to review important issues such as boundaries.  This is a place where I think parents need to be involved in outlining acceptable behavior.  Family rules should apply to these teens just as they do with non-handicapped teens. When parents outline the rules they are comfortable with, the guidance needs to be clear and concrete.

What should a parent do when confronted with this situation?

  • Begin by teaching your son/daughter the stages in relationships. This is not clear in the media or in the other teens your child comes in contact with, so they will need to be taught.
  • Ask your school to develop a similar system so that it can be reinforced in school.
  • Even though this is a difficult topic, you can help your teen to develop healthy relationships that enrich his/her life.