August 7, 2018

Identifying Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children with Special Needs

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are enjoying your summer!  At the beginning of August, a child with special needs was sexually abused by a school bus driver in our local community.  It is not known how long the abuse has been going on for or if this was a single instance.  What is known is that the child was a vulnerable target and unable to defend themselves against this individual.  So what about my child?!  What about other children with special needs?  How can I tell if my child is a victim of sexual abuse?  What if my child does not tell me they are being abused?  How can I get them help?  I am going to attempt to address these concerns in today's post, drawing on my personal past experiences as a child welfare worker with children with special needs who were victims of sexual abuse.
      Ok, so before we begin to look at warning signs of sexual abuse in children with special needs, we need review why they may not be able to use their words to communicate the abuse in the first place.  I have written a previous post discussing this in detail, which you can read here: Factors Contributing to Aggression in Sexual Abuse Victims with Autism.  To summarize in brief, children with special needs often present with significant limitations around interpreting, processing, and appropriately communicating complex thoughts and emotions.  They are not at all unlike non-special needs children in that they are able to understand trauma as a significant, damaging event, or that they often react to trauma as any other individual will.  Sexual abuse IS trauma, yet the child with special needs will experience that trauma's associated fear of the perpetrator, anxiety, shame, confusion, lack of knowledge and so on as an much heavier insult on their brain's already limited ability to multi-task the processes of accurately receiving, processing, contextualizing, and accurately understanding the event itself to be able to report it.  As we know, many children with special needs rely on using comparison of facts and information within existing frameworks of past experience to generate understanding and internally driven responses to new occurrences in their lives.  Often, the result in this context, is not reporting sexual abuse at all (or waiting to report until they recognize something is inappropriate) or shutting down as a way of either avoiding the stresses involved in processing the trauma or fear of the perpetrator.
      During my time in child welfare, we were taught to observe children with special needs for signs of sexual abuse, physical and behavioral, using the same criteria as for non-special needs children.  Very quickly, we began to notice that while children with special needs do present symptoms in similar ways to other children, they also present with some significant differences.  Here is what to look for:

Physical Signs:

Physical injury such as cuts, scrapes, bruises, etc. (child welfare does not distinguish between physical injury done by the child to themselves or that done by someone else)

Complaints of pain or burning in "private areas" (your child may have their own terms for private parts so listen for any instances when they speak about something being different with them)

Increased or decreased expulsion of body waste (complaints of pain or burning can create the sensation of having to use the bathroom; they can also create pain making toiletting too difficult to perform without significant discomfort, leading to toiletting avoidance)

Other signs of physical trauma to private areas such as difficulty walking/sitting, blood in under garments, difficulty toiletting or presence of "sudden" venereal disease (from a former worker standpoint, as a parent make sure you rule out any other possible medical reasons for these injuries)

Increased presence of self-inflicted wounds/injury (I consider this one separate from physical injury as these wounds can be closely linked with increased self-injurious behavior being used to self-sooth after trauma)

Physical changes in child's affect or non-verbal expression of emotion (how do their expressions actually look different when they register emotion, not the behavior of showing emotion)

Weight loss (the physical effect of the behavior change of not eating by refusing to let objects near the mouth.  I encountered this complication in several circumstances where the child's sudden weight loss and refusal to eat was the result of trauma from sexual abuse)

      These may sound obvious so why are you wasting a post, and more importantly MY time with your ramblings?  I cannot stress enough from the child welfare perspective that physical signs of sexual abuse are one of those warnings equivalent to pushing the red button that launches the nukes only to result in an irreversible nuclear holocaust with an "oops...sorry wrong way to deal with this situation" response that does not fix the damage.  In child welfare, all physical injuries or signs of sexual abuse are cause for report and investigation by child protective services; the majority of child welfare workers are not taught about the unique aspects of physical injury to children with special needs such as for purposes of self-soothing or expressing emotion.  However, child welfare will not draw any conclusions confirming the presence of abuse or not without a "preponderance of evidence", and therefore will not take conclusive action until such evidence is gathered.  It is very unfortunate that this often means the abuse continues while evidence to support the presence of abuse is being gathered.  In other situations, where the abuse is stopped, the perpetrator is not comprehensively punished due to the lack of gathered evidence to link them to the child.  This results in a very catch-22 situation for parents and I think gets at much of the rage in the community over the lack of action taken against perpetrators.
      No parent should be expected to allow their child with special needs to continue to suffer sexual abuse to have it proven; sexual abuse is sexual abuse regardless of frequency or types of inappropriate sexual behavior by the perpetrator.  However, speaking from experience, the same investigatory system that will immediately investigate reports of abuse will also work against many victims and their families by forcing them to prove that it was not another cause of the injury and was instead abuse.  Parents are likely to be investigated for their role in the injury and often times jurisdictions will not include the testimony of the victim due in large part to societal views of children, especially children with special needs as unreliable reporters or as being unable to accurately understand what occurred.  We also live in a society where sexual abuse of minors is very taboo and to think of it being done to children by the same institutions designed to help them grow, is horrific.  Unfortunately, and not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, many institutions will not consider the issue as being an issue affecting them, and if they do, they often will expend great resources to disprove or mitigate the impact on their position in society.  I cannot tell you how many times I have had to testify on behalf of the child welfare system against another government institution that a child with special needs was sexual abused only for the other institution to challenge the credibility of mine and the child/their family reports.

Behavioral Signs:

Behavior signs like physical signs require a preponderance of proof and will be challenged more rigorously than physical signs as being conclusive.  Again this has to do with the same reasons as mentioned above.  There will be much more examination of other possible causes of the behavior change as being responsible before sexual abuse will be acknowledged as the culprit.  Unfortunately, the behavior signs can be much more conclusive indicators of sexual abuse, but do not get the intensive treatment as physical indicators.  Do not be surprised to hear that your observations of behavior change do not constitute a reportable or investigable incident.  Here are the behavior signs used by child welfare and some that are not, but which experience has shown to be important to notice.

Sleep issues (many children with and without special needs will experience night terrors or disruptions to sleep, however children with special needs often have significant sleep issues unrelated to abuse or trauma so be very careful when examining this one)

Increased or decreased toilet use (pain caused by sexual abuse to private areas can contribute to urges to go to the bathroom as well as contributing to avoidance due to pain associated with going)

Changes in eating or refusal to eat (mentioned above under physical signs, weight loss caused by refusal to eat may be an indicator of possible fear or repulsion of objects near/in the mouth.  Can present as sudden new sensory aversion)

Increased rumination (for many children with special needs, rumination is a form of self-soothing, especially for non-verbal children; an increase in ruminative behaviors may be worth noting)

Also be aware of cognitive rumination such as repetitive statements about body parts, self-hate remarks, repetitive discussion of sexual behavior or questions, a hyper-focus on certain individuals and discussing their body parts, and so on.

Sudden changes in mood and increased irritability (there are many causes for this one so it helps to observe for any sudden changes in behavior around known stressors or known pleasures to the child)

New fear of specific places or individuals (can be caused by many factors, yet worth noting)

Increased aggression towards certain trusted individual(s) (this does not mean the trusted individual is by any means the perpetrator, yet the child may take out their aggression on this individual because they are a safe outlet.  In several cases children with special needs I worked with took aggression out on trusted individuals physically and verbally for not "protecting them").

Increased presence of fear of being left alone or abandoned by a trusted individual

Statements of betrayal by trusted individual (many children with special needs think in very concrete terms of the role trusted individuals play; they can often feel betrayed if the individual fails to perform their role or shifts in their performance)

Increased extremes in emotional expression (individuals with special needs experience emotions very strongly and may experience greater difficulty regulating themselves in response to trauma.  Conversely they may withdraw or shut down emotionally.  Both of these are closely involved in the discussion of cognitive limitation impacts on processing trauma)

Increased presence of self-injurious behavior (This is a complex one owing in part to an increased societal focus on preventing suicide.  It is not uncommon for child welfare workers or other professionals involved in the care of children to "jump the gun" and attribute self-injurious behavior as a sign of suicidal thinking.  Do not discount the possibility as this has a history of occurring in response to sexual abuse.  Unfortunately, there is not much literature on suicidality in sexual abuse victims with special needs and even less on individuals with special needs ability to distinguish between self-injurious behavior and self-harm)

Disrupted routines (There are always disruptions to routines, but not by the individual with special needs if they can help it.  Routine is comforting and safe so observations of self-initiated deviation from routine and increased disorganization can be a sign worth noting)

Previously non-existent phobias (some children may develop a phobia to a specific aspect of the sexual abuse that may seem strange or random to outside observers)

 Increased presence/persistence of negative behaviors (especially common in non-verbal children as a means of self-expression.  I have also witnessed on several occasions where a child with special needs would engage in behaviors upsetting to trusted individuals as a way of showing anger toward them for not helping them)

Changes in metaphorical expression (children with special needs often use metaphors centered around topics of interest to better understand/relate to their world.  Watch for changes of how these metaphors are used, especially increases in aggressive or fear-based use as well as sudden changes to the repertoire of use.  For example one child I worked with used football players as a metaphor for understanding social interactions; he began talking about the players punching each other in their private parts when they were angry and grabbing each other inappropriately when they wanted to tell another player they liked how they played.

      Ok, so I have thrown a lot at you and this is no easy or pleasant topic to deal with.  But what about psychological/emotional signs of abuse?  Unfortunately, your best bet as a parent is to focus on the physical and behavior warning signs when dealing with child welfare.  Psychological and emotional signs outside of those related to visible behaviors are very hard to use since they are subjective and do not have concrete evidence to back them up.
      As a former child welfare worker, I cannot stress the importance of understanding the warning signs and being able to not only recognize them when they happen but to CRITICALLY evaluate them and their implications when considering the possibility of sexual abuse in your child with special needs.  In a number of respects your job of protecting your child is made more difficult by their diagnoses and increased vulnerability.  However, you are the expert on your child and if you suspect something is wrong, then go with it.  Just remember to carefully evaluate all symptoms very carefully if for no other reason than your own peace of mind and for building your case when you report.  I wish you all the best of luck and please know that you have allies in the community who want to help despite the red-tape of the system.  Thank you for reading and take care!

June 18, 2018

Podcast Episode About Friendship

Hello Everyone,

I hope you are all having a happy June.  Recently, I was interviewed by the "Better With You" podcast about some of my experiences working with young people with developmental diagnoses on issues around making and keeping friends.  When first approached to do the episode, I thought it would be important to focus on how capable and successful individuals with developmental diagnoses are at making and keeping friends.  It was also equally important to me to focus on why there are so many misconceptions about their social/emotional abilities and challenge them by using observations from different points in my career working with these individuals.  I hope you will be able to take a listen by clicking on the links below.  

Stitcher (You can stream through your browser)


You can also search find the episode on Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, and most other Podcast apps by searching "Better With You" 

I am also excited to hopefully doing future episodes and would love to hear your stories about your child, other family member, or yourself for that matter.  You can email me directly at rhoajo01@gmail.com if interested in sharing your story.  Together we can put an end to these misconceptions of people with developmental diagnoses being individuals without emotions, having no social abilities, being totally clueless to others, and not being capable of or desiring longterm relationships.

May 23, 2018

RESCHEDULED!!!! Masturbation and Your Young Man with Autism

Hello Everyone,

No post for May.  My originally scheduled free information session "Masturbation and Your Young Man with Autism" has been rescheduled for this August to allow more time for interested individuals to register.  Please see below for the new details and I look forward to seeing you there!

Masturbation and Your Young Man with Autism

What is it? 
This is a FREE one-hour event for parents of young men with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental diagnoses looking at addressing concerning behaviors associated with young men and masturbation during puberty.

What time are we meeting?
The discussion will be held on Saturday, August 11th at 12:30 P.M.

Where are we meeting?
We will be meeting at 10400 Connecticut Ave., Ste. 200, in Kensington Maryland.  Free parking is available in the parking lot next to the building.  Parking is easiest to access if you are coming down Connecticut Avenue toward the District of Columbia.

Is there a fee?
There is no fee for this discussion, however space is limited so please register early to guarantee a space.

What will we talk about?
What is masturbation anyway? 
Why does my son masturbate?
How do I have a conversation with my son about safe and appropriate masturbation?
How do I teach healthy and safe boundaries around masturbation?
How can I manage my own worries around having this discussion?                                              
What about my fears that he may get into serious trouble?  What about safety?
How can I be supportive and nurturing of my son's behavior during this time?
What about PORNOGRAPHY?!

Who do I talk to if I want to register?

You can contact the presenter, Jonathan Rhoads*, directly at (301)-639-4036 or by email at rhoajo01@gmail.com to register.

*Jonathan Rhoads is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children, adolescents, and young adults diagnoses with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental diagnoses.  His areas of focus include building awareness and understanding of complex feelings and emotions, developing solutions to manage environmental stress, and addressing social anxiety issues around dating and relationships.

April 19, 2018

Introducing the "Let's Talk Sex and Sexuality for People with IDD and Autism" Series

Hello Everyone,

Image result for autism awarenessWe are well into Autism Awareness Month and the outpouring of support is really wonderful!  It is really great to see such attention being paid to increasing awareness of autism and efforts to celebrate the individual over the diagnosis.  Celebrating similarities and focusing on successes is critical to helping shift social views on autism; however at this time, it is also very important to pay attention to important areas of difficulty many of our young individuals, and their support systems, must face and find effective ways to address.  As a parent of a young person, you can probably identify several areas of difficulty you are struggling to help your child manage effectively, especially if your child is about to enter or is already wading through the process of puberty. 
Let's face it, puberty can be a real pain in the brain (and body) to deal with, whether you have a developmental diagnosis or not.  Both boys and girls have an equally difficult time coping with puberty. Speaking as a man, and based on my experience working primarily with young men with developmental diagnoses, young guys have a very difficult time adjusting and coping with the changes to their bodies.  When you factor in growing interest in the opposite sex (or not) coupled with hormone changes, subtle and the not so subtle, which you often cannot control, the prospect can be downright overwhelming!  What to do?!  How do we talk to our young guys about their growing sexual awareness?  How do we help them understand what is happening to their bodies and why it is happening?  How do we get ourselves to a place where we can help them understand what sex is and what it means to be a sexual being?  How do we get comfortable speaking to them about safe sexual behavior, knowing full well the numerous mine-fields associated with legal issues around inappropriate sexual behavior?  Honestly, that's often least on the mind of young men who are more preoccupied with trying to gain mastery over their hormone hijacked bodies.  Well, there is hope out there!  Starting in May, I will be posting a series of updates about free talks I will be giving that address some of these issues around puberty, sex, and sexuality, being encountered by parents and their young men. 
I am planning that the first discussion will be for parents, with future offerings for individuals and self-advocates with developmental diagnoses. Please take a look below for my first offering.  There is a very real need for discussing this topic as it impacts girls with developmental diagnoses and these may be offered in the future.  Please know that these topics are presented based on community demand.  If there is a topic you would like discussed, please tell me!


Masturbation and Your Young Man with Autism

What is it? 
This is a FREE one-hour event for parents of young men with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental diagnoses looking at addressing behavior concerns associated with young men and masturbation during puberty.


What time are we meeting?
The discussion will be held on Saturday, May 19th at 12:30 P.M.

Where are we meeting?
We will be meeting at 10400 Connecticut Ave., Ste. 200, in Kensington Maryland.  Free parking is available in the parking lot next to the building.  Parking is easiest to access if you are coming down Connecticut Avenue toward the District of Columbia.

Is there a fee?
There is no fee for this discussion, however space is limited so please register early to guarantee a space.

What will we talk about?
What is masturbation anyway? 
Why does my son masturbate?
How do I have a conversation with my son about safe and appropriate masturbation?
How do I teach healthy and safe boundaries around masturbation?
How can I manage my own worries around having this discussion?                                              
What about my fears that he may get into serious trouble?  What about safety?
How can I be supportive and nurturing of my son's behavior during this time?
What about PORNOGRAPHY?!

Who do I talk to if I want to register?

You can contact the presenter, Jonathan Rhoads*, directly at (301)-639-4036 or by email at rhoajo01@gmail.com to register.

*Jonathan Rhoads is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children, adolescents, and young adults diagnoses with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental diagnoses.  His areas of focus include building awareness and understanding of complex feelings and emotions, developing solutions to manage environmental stress, and addressing social anxiety issues around dating and relationships.




March 13, 2018

What About the Happy Ending? Examples of Dating Success in Young Men with Developmental Diagnoses

Hello Everyone,

      First of all, happy March!  Spring is almost here!  This month's post has been created in response to the plentiful and greatly appreciated feedback to my Valentine's Day post about difficulties our young men face when dealing with being single at that particular time of year.  One reader raised a very important point, which I unfortunately overlooked: what about the successes?  What about examples where our young men are beating the odds and successfully dating or having a relationship?  It is my sincere hope that the following examples of "success stories" from my professional and personal experience will provide some response to that question and provide you, the reader, whether a parent, other family member, or young person with developmental differences, with some encouragement to not give up the quest to find a loving relationship.
    Before I share the stories (all names have been changed to protect identity), I would like to take a moment to encourage readers, especially family members and friends of our young guys, to put aside your socialized ideals of attractiveness and what makes a relationship.  Please take a moment to put aside your worries about your young man moving too fast or not knowing what they are getting themselves into.  Please guide them, but do not conduct them.  At this time you will need to have faith so you can take that leap of faith in trusting that they know what they are looking for in a relationship. SUSPEND YOUR DISBELIEF!!!!!  If we do not suspend our disbelief and discard our notions of what a relationship is so that we may pick up an image that may seem fantastical to us, we continue to ensure that our young men will not have the means to create their own reality and graduate from the Real Life School for Relationship Success.  Now for our first story!
    This first story holds a special place for me because it emphasizes the crux of suspending our disbelief and allowing the individual to determine their reality.  I worked with Karam shortly after I graduated with my M.S.W and was employed with the Child and Family Services Agency in Washington D.C. doing reunification work with youth with developmental disabilities.  Karam was a 16 year-old male diagnosed with an intellectual disability, short bowel syndrome, and spastic quadriplegia as a result of being exposed to crack cocaine and methamphetamines in utero.  Karam was largely non-verbal and attended a special education program at his local high school where he met Jan, a girl also with an intellectual disability and severe cerebral palsy.  Karam would use a word board to communicate; he also used facial expressions to convey his emotions; whenever Jan's name was mentioned he would beam and would spell out "GirFren", which his foster mother and guardian had learned meant "girlfriend".  His foster mother showed me pictures of their dates where Jan would be holding hands with Karam and they would both be smiling from ear to ear; Karam said that Jan's mother reported how she never smiled as much as when she was with Karam, who she referred to as her "man".  Both caregivers used word boards to help Karam and Jan dictate emails or what to say to each other over the phone.  You could tell by looking at Karam that he understood what Jan was saying.  By the time my time work with Karam ended, he had shown me pictures of their prom date and was excited that his and Jan's caregivers had arranged for them to have weekly sleepovers as a couple.
    That example may seem extraordinary, yet it was made into a reality because Karam and Jan's caregivers were willing to view their relationship according to their unique terms.  They did not try to stop it despite numerous statements about "not getting it" and "How can they even know what a relationship is when they can barely do anything?"  Instead they worked to help Karam and Jan achieve something that was uniquely theirs, hand holding, smiling, and all.
    When I was first starting out in private practice, one of the first people I worked with was Garth.  Garth was a 27 year-old young man with Down syndrome.  Garth had been referred to me because he was depressed about not having a girlfriend.  His parents reported that he would watch romantic movies and cry because the guy always got the girl in the end; he would comment that he was "ugly and not hot like in the movies".  Like many young men, he desired a super-model girlfriend, what many guys regardless of diagnosis would consider the fantasy dream of dreams.  Garth experienced tremendous pain after having been rejected or ridiculed for approaching women and trying lines from movies on them.  His parents encouraged him to join a dating website, which he did; he never received any responses or interest in his profile.  During session one day, Garth told his mother he wanted to date a girl with an intellectual disability like him.  His mother was horrified that something bad would happen and that Garth would end up miserable because she was convinced "he can't possibly understand the concept of a relationship".  She also worried that he would be mocked in the community if seen with another woman acting like they were in a relationship.  garth's mom was encouraged to put her fears on hold and encourage Garth in his efforts, noting how it would likely help boost is self-acceptance and identity.
    Over the next month Garth and his mother would come into session and discuss dating safety and etiquette.  Garth's mother even signed him up for some social groups where he could meet other women his age.  Three months later Garth came into session with his mother, bringing a picture of himself with a young woman, whom he met at an group event.  Garth's mother said how nervous she was for his success, but that he introduced himself on his own and was able to get her contact information.  Garth began talking about the activities he would like to do with his friend, prompting his mother to interrupt with "she's not your girlfriend yet!".  Both of us were quite surprised when he said "This is what I need to do to know her first".  Garth's mother continued to arrange for him to see the young woman and eventually mentioned that she had been wrong about assuming her son did not know how to find a relationship.
    Similar to Garth, Roger desired to be in a relationship with a woman who had a disability like him.  Roger, a 33 year-old male, had autism and had never been in a relationship before.  He lived with his parents who did not think Roger had the ability to have a relationship because of his severe social anxiety and inappropriate social behavior.  Roger was a huge fan of vintage toys and would go to toy shows; his parents could not figure out how he could go to a toy show with thousands of people and yet not have the courage to talk to a woman.  Roger's dad was not very supportive of his desire and would openly grill him on why he could not "just get over yourself and talk to a woman".  One day Roger came to session saying he had talked to a woman at a recent toy show and had gotten her email address.  Roger, who was so happy at telling me the news, was instantly crushed when his parents demanded he hand over her contact information and not have any contact with her.  Roger said she had autism and that he wanted to be in a relationship with her.  Of course, his parents became livid and his mother began to cry.  Roger was very upset, but remained firm in his desire, refusing to give his parents her contact information.  He began sending her emails and shortly developed a strong "pen-pal" relationship with her.  His parents continued to clash with him about his "relationship status", which resulted in numerous intense arguments and several occasions where Roger eloped after being told his relationship was "not real".  Finally in session one day, Roger's father asked his mother what harm would come if they agreed with him about his choosing to call his pen-pal a relationship.  Both were hesitant, but the next session was very different.  Both mother and father reported that after encouraging Roger, who was naturally very resistant, to tell them anything about his recent interactions with his friend, they referred to his relationship.  They reported that Roger was elated and began showing them emails and Facebook messages, assuring them that he was safe and that she was a real person.  More recently, Roger indicated he felt "safe" with her having the type of relationship they had over the internet and that they both referred to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend.  His parents still have difficulty viewing his relationship through more conventional lenses, yet are supporting him in creating something that is his.
    The previous three stories focus on individual young men with varying levels of diagnosis who chose to be in relationships with women who also had similar diagnoses.  But can there be any success for those young guys among us who want to date someone without a developmental diagnosis?  The answer is yes!
    Dave is someone who I would consider a dear friend.  I have known him since we were in school in the same resource class together.  Dave has Aspergers and, while he is not currently in a relationship, he has dated several women for extensive periods of time.  Neither of the women he dated had autism and both were attractive, attractive according to him.  I stress this point because it is critical that our young men have our unwavering support whether how we define a relationship or what we find attractive.  Dave has stated he felt greater confidence when he had the support of his friends, especially when they thought his girlfriend was attractive.  Objectifying aside, physical attraction is very important to men and a socially strong indicator of being successful on the dating/relationship scene.  Being with someone you find attractive is more important than the views of others, yet having that support can be extremely boosting to the self-acceptance.  Anyway, Dave met both of his girlfriends at the building where he worked, during breaks in the cafeteria.  Dave's personality was the winning card; he was friendly, polite, and unassuming.  Dave was also very respectful and not pushy, which was a big advantage for him when it came to making them feel comfortable.  Dave said he owed his success to practicing with friends by taking advantage of social opportunities to practice small talk.  Dave also said that by the time he disclosed that he had autism, the woman he was seeing was not bothered or turned off by that admission; Dave had moved slowly getting to know them before spending time together as friends and then moving onto the relationship stage.  I believe it is important to reiterate that Dave is currently single if for no other reason than to stress that neither of his breakups was in any way related to him having autism.
    I could share numerous other success stories about young men and women I have worked with or have known in private life, however the four stories featured here were picked to provide, hopefully with some success, a cross-section of achievement from a range of different diagnoses.  It is my hope that by sharing the stories of these guys whom I have been blessed to know, that you may gently challenge your beliefs of what makes a relationship...more importantly, that you may gently ask yourself who holds the right to define what is and what isn't.  Maybe your Garth or Karam is searching.  Maybe your Roger has found someone.  Whoever your young man may be, Dave, or otherwise, encourage them and support them.  Most importantly, love them so that they may love themselves enough to keep reaching for relationship success.  Thank you!

February 12, 2018

I Was Rejected for a Date! Why Valentine's Day is Tough for Young Men With Developmental Disabilities

Hello Everyone,

      Happy February!  Valentine's Day is coming and with it comes a flood of advertisements for Hallmark cards, fancy chocolates, and of course, expensive jewelry.  We also get many helpful articles full of advice on the secrets of successful flirting, advice on the best places to go on a first date, advice on how to keep a potential partner's interest, and advice on how to keep a relationship going.  Ok...so what happens in REAL life where the commercials are not real and we have to contend with the boogie man of the dating world known as "rejection"?
      For all of us it is a very real outcome for those of us picking up the dating playbook and trying to learn the game, dare it be said, art, of dating.  For all men, fear of rejection is all too real.  For men, especially young men with developmental disabilities, rejection is sadly more common than many want to acknowledge.  This is most true for those who are interested in pursuing relationships with partners who do not have such a diagnosis.
      I run several social groups for young men with developmental disabilities ranging from Down Syndrome to Prader Willi Syndrome to Autism.  Each year as Valentine's Day arrives, the topic of discussion in group invariably swings to dating and addressing self-hate over being rejected repeatedly for a date.  Each year these young guys beat themselves up wondering "what have I done wrong?", or worse, "what's wrong with me?"  These are questions that know no diagnosis, questions that cannot be easily answered with the easy answer: "Dating is a number's game.  You just have to keep trying."
      "A number's game....you have to keep trying."  Hopefully this post will provide some other suggestions to support your friend or loved one who is dealing with rejection.  One of the guys in my group said it better than I ever could: "For me, successful dating is like someone giving me an half-missing instruction manual to build a Maserati and being told to make it happen....I am given tools except I do not know what tool is for what part or how they are even used".
    So, why does reject seem to happen more to young men with developmental disabilities and why are they so affected?  As exemplified by the group member, so much of dating is based around unspoken social rules.  This is especially true with flirting, a potentially extremely troublesome area for our young guys because flirting is so often the first step to determining interest in another person; it is the equivalent of laying a foundation for a building, in our case, a "dating building".  However, unlike laying a building foundation, which is rooted in concrete (pardon the pun) science, following strict rules, successful flirting requires the practitioner to build his foundation on educated guesswork.  He has to guess and interpret the non-verbal behaviors (eye contact, posture, facial expression, gestures, position of self, etc.) to determine their interest and if the opportunity is there to make an attempt at meeting.
      However, unlike an actual building where the tools are set, the processes determined and assured, and there is little room for reciprocal action on their part, the same is not true with flirting.  Here we get into what I call human error.  Human error exists on the part of the user, but also on the part of the other person involved.  Remember that any interaction involves more than one person, where each person is in charge of themselves, but not the other.  This means that the other person may not react as may be expected, or may be using duplicitous non-verbal language: their cues do not match what they are genuinely experiencing.  The guys in group often say that they saw someone smile at them only to turn them down.  Another common observation is that they start a conversation and then do not know what to say and the other person leaves.  Here we see an additional face of human error, misinterpretation of signals (duplicitous or not) and misuse of communication skills on the part of the user.  Quickly back to the building analogy, if the builder messes up his foundation he can do a calculation to fix the error next time.  If a guy messes up on his foundation when flirting by misreading a cue or through misuse of social skills, he can try to figure out what to do different next time, except there is no scientific guarantee that it will work.  He cannot control that human error in others whom he approaches, leading to such frustration and discouragement.  He will not have the foundation to build a stable dating platform.
    Imagine, if you will, that our young guy is attempting to meet someone and trying to use flirting and social skills to get a date.  Now imagine, that he continuously messes up somehow and repeatedly meets with failure.  Would you not start to think poorly of yourself?  To think negatively about your chances for success?  Why wouldn't you?  Your tools don't work!  For many individuals with developmental disabilities, the ability to conceptually think about what is known as "theory of mind" or the ability to think about how someone else may perceive them or what they are thinking in general, is often too abstract and complex to think about.  Many individuals are very black and white thinkers, meaning they approach situations very simply, often from a yes or no, good or bad, position.  Quite often, individuals with developmental disabilities will have a very difficult to impossible time thinking about all the different pieces involved in the flirting/dating game.  They are more likely to focus on themselves and their behavior as their self is easier to understand in terms of thought action fusion i.e. they may be able to more successfully make a connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a flirting situation.  Often, such awareness is sadly incomplete.  Many individuals with developmental disabilities lack understanding of how their behaviors and control affect others; many may not be aware of what they are doing with their own body (oftne this is outside of their own control). However, the double-edged horror of it all is that they cannot readily understand the responses of the person they approached.  Doing so would mean that they have to be in that person's mind, an impossibility!  So, how painful for our young guy to try to figure out why (because every person regardless of disability or not, wants to know why someone else acts the way they do toward us) the other person responded negatively without being able to get an answer!  The consequence is that he will likely turn the experience on himself and think he has done something wrong.
      Now let's take our young guy, who, like many other young guys with developmental disabilities, has a much harder time grasping the nuances of human interaction in flirting, and has a limited capacity to understand others' behavior in relation to his own, and tell him he has to take that single negative experience and learn from it.  He has to generalize, take information and apply it to other situations appropriately, the rejection and keep trying with other people.  This is very hard for someone with limited ability to think about broader situations in the context of temporal experience and future planning.  Even for individuals without developmental disabilities, conceptualizing about the future and the notion of other random situations and circumstances is next to impossible, but we can at least make some plans to deal with the situations when they come.  For us, if we were rejected by someone because they were having a bad day, we might plan to be more wary about approaching someone who looks ruffled.  For our young guy, it may be more like giving him an answer to A+B=C and expect him to figure out how to rework the equation to create a suitable answer for the next random situation, which happens to be D-X=F.  Our guy would likely get hung up on the fact that previously the person he approached had a bad day and that was reflected in their facial expression then (if he even found out).  The next time, he approaches someone the information gained about approaching someone who looks ruffled, may be discarded because that previous experience was with a different person and this person is different, they are not the same.  The message of not approaching people who look ruffled would likely not be generalized.  This is a very simplistic example, but hopefully it serves to illustrate how difficult it can be for individuals with developmental disabilities to think in fluid manners in social situations as is required by the world we live in.
      Regardless of the science behind the actual workings, failure at flirting and rejection leads too often to the individual turning the result inward.  They blame themselves and over time, as they keep trying to build that foundation by achieving flirting success, they repeatedly fail, that blame increases with devastating impact on self-esteem.  So yes, flirting and dating can be a numbers game, but it is one that requires tremendous support for our loved one.
      So what can we do to help our young men deal with rejection?  Well, normalization can work, but it is very hard for individuals with developmental disabilities to understand parallel examples such as "When I was dating..." or "This is normal for everyone..." For young men regardless, these sentiments may be more difficult to hear if given by a parent because the parent does have a relationship, or did at one time if they are the biological parent.  Why broad concepts of cause and effect may be tough for individuals with developmental disabilities to grasp, they are very successful with understanding basic cause and effect; often times too successful to the point where they are overly rigid.  Also, bear in mind that the experiences of others, successful or not, often have little impact on the individual with disabilities due to their predominant self-focus as point of understanding everything that happens around them.
      As parents, we need to remember that we are in a complex position of having to teach and guide our young men differently than we might if they did not have such diagnosis.  Consequently, we often have to work harder at reinforcing socially appropriate behaviors, especially around interacting with others, particularly strangers.  This is very understandable, especially given the vulnerability of these individuals and the very real safety threats in society.  With a great tendency towards impulsiveness, lack of awareness of self and others, and critical thinking abilities, planful thinking and generalizing is more difficult.  It can also be more dangerous and as parents we tend to be quick to jump on any situation and use it as a teaching moment or opportunity to deliver consequences.  We need to be very careful that our efforts to teach them how to engage people when flirting or asking them on a date, does not lead to shaming.  We also need to be very aware of how our own internal reactions come across in our responses.  There have been numerous instances with young guys I work with where we have to do a great deal of work on repairing their self-esteem in the aftermath of a well-meaning parent's reprimand for approaching a woman.
      Validation of our young men is so powerful and it does so much to build support between them and those who care about them.  A simple validation of their desire to have a relationship is so helpful, and it does not require you, the parent, to do anything amazing except send the message that you care.  Remember that people with disabilities experience emotions and want to experience them with other people; they want relationships like we do.  Knowing how your young guy expresses his emotions and care is critical because you can work with them to find appropriate ways of expression.  Validation boosts self-confidence and reinforces self-worth.  That is critical!  Take time as a parent to focus special time on building their confidence through activities they enjoy, setting up get-togethers with friends, and supporting their interests and/or work efforts.  Celebrate the whole them!  Don't just celebrate the parts of them that are what first impressions often, unfortunately are made of, their appearance.  Reinforcing confidence will also help your young man avoid shut down and self-hating if he has a lifeline to some positive self-power after a rejection.  Validation is not blind support and sympathy for your young guy.  Rather it is a show of empathy and understanding, which can open the door for teaching opportunities, especially those where a consequence or severe response is needed.
      We, as parents, also need to be aware that our young men often will make mistakes, like anyone else, but may not be aware of how their actions contributed to the negative outcome.  This takes some finesse so it does not seem like they are being targeted or shamed.  Remember it is very easy for people to ruminate on negative information, especially if they believe they messed up; individuals with developmental disabilities will likely engage in self-rumination more in the attempt to get information for next time.  Use failures as teaching moments by combining validation first then teaching after, using your young guy as a reference for social education.  For example: "You thought that girl was so beautiful you needed to walk right over to tell her.  Do you think you would like someone to interrupt your conversation to talk to you?"  Wait for a response and then validate and reinforce for their contribution before offering the teaching moment "It is fine to want to compliment someone.  You can compliment them when they are done talking".  Being gentle is just as important as validating; these young guys want to succeed and they want to please themselves and you!
      As a final note, rejection does occur with greater frequency in different situations and in different environments.  As generalizing lessons learned from rejection across such differences can be a nightmare for our young men, you as the parent can do them a great service by finding "safer" opportunities and ways to meet people rather than randomly in public places.  Organized dating events, social gatherings in the community, faith groups, and special interest groups are some examples of "safer" environments.  Also remember that they do not think that time is on their side and waiting is really hard, so you will need to stay strong and resilient as well each time they verbalize their frustration.  You are there to support them and they will know it based on how you react.  I hope this has been helpful and thank you so much for reading!

December 15, 2017

Don't Burn Out This Holiday Season!

Hello Everyone,

      First of all, happy holidays!  The season is here again and for some of us celebrations are already in full swing.  As wonderful as this time of year is, there is of course, more than its fair share (so it seems) of stressors and chaos.  It seems each holiday season brings new trials just as fast we learn how to cope with old ones.  2017 is no exception.  We are still adjusting to a new president and the events surrounding him, which are recorded for us blow by blow in the media.  Social advocacy for basic rights is front and center and understandably commands much needed attention.  We hear about natural disasters as if they are happening in our own back yards and the numerous conflicts raging around the world.  We are being barraged by reports of local attacks and a seeming increase in the violence of these incidents.  Everyone is wary of the next such attack and with seeming increases (at least reported) in teen suicides, depression, and the phenomenon of cyber bullying.  And we still must get the holiday shopping done.  What a downer right?  How can we stay sane for ourselves and for our children?  How can we have a peaceful holiday season like the holiday greetings wish us?
      December's post is here to hopefully demonstrate by example three quick ways you can help yourself avoid burnout this holiday season.  Flexibility, adaptibility, and self-forgiveness.  I will use myself as an example.  In addition to having to deal with living in the world we live in and manage my practice, maintain my resource website, and engage in speaking events, I have a new addition to my family, which requires a HUGE deal of attention.  Infant care takes a huge toll of time and energy; quite simply I do not have the time to devote to generating a lengthy post on managing holiday stress or even to address my own holiday stress!  And, that's OK!  Yet I put myself under great pressure to create a useful and informative post each month so I often get bound by inflexibility around the idea that I MUST do so.  It really weighs heavy, especially juggling all the stressors of the world I cannot shut out.
      I have to exercise self-forgiveness by acknowledging that my situation may not permit me to create the post I want by contributing some revolutionary suggestions to the many already out there.  I have to take my situation and look at what I can actually accomplish, allow myself to experience the feelings around not being able to do what I want to.  Doing so really helps clear the mental paralysis of getting "stuck" on what is not working, allowing me to shift to exploring flexibility and adaptability.  I first need to adapt to the changes in my situation and realize that with time being the biggest constraint, I have to work within the limits of less time.  I can then choose to take what I have analyzed in my situation and make another plan i.e. be flexible to work with what I can work with and within the limits of my situation.  By organizing, prioritizing, and making a plan I can get past the "too much to do and not enough time" paralysis.  Doing so not only gives me a solution to my original problem, but allows me to feel a sense of self-accomplishment, which is really the biggest score of all.  I bet you can do the same and even better than I do!
       So what does that all mean?  Well, I am changing my planned post to be one that provides links to resources that do focus on how to avoid holiday burnout.  It's one way I can limit the stressor of work on my other main stressors of raising an newborn and getting ready for the holidays.  I have tried to include a number of different resources to reflect different stressors during the holidays.  Let's take a look.

What causes holiday stress?
Great overview with suggestions!

More causes for holiday stress
This has more of a scientific approach, yet is interesting for those wanting to learn more about the impact of biological and environmental stressors during the holidays.

The Mayo Clinic's tips for managing holiday stress
This resource is a nice, quick read and makes good sense.  It sends a nice message about making a plan to deal with the holidays by preparing ahead of time.

25 ways to beat holiday stress
Simple, effective, and provided by real people, these suggestions are readily useable.  They also send a wonderful message about self-forgiveness and that it's ok to be human!

The Money Crashers guide to managing holiday stress
Our pocketbooks certainly feel the stress this time of year so this resource focuses on one of the most unpleasant stressors in an easy-to-read way.

Travel during the holidays
For parents with kids needing to travel during the holidays.  Good luck!

Holiday Ceasefire
Next to finances, I cannot think of many other stressors as tough as out of control child behavior!  A good read with good suggestions in a common-sense frame of mind.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's resources for managing holiday stress in children
Children do not need to have experienced trauma to have stress during the holidays.  Some might say the holiday season generates its own traumas.  This is a great resource for trauma focused holiday stress management.

Holiday stress in step-families and families with divorced parents
A nice guide for parents in these situations to help their children cope with the emotional aspects the holidays bring about this time of year.

Coping with in-law visits
Another easy read and has a number of very good points.

Family impacts on stress during the holidays
Offered by popular science, this article is a little on the long side but interesting

Tips for couples spending their first holidays together
Lots of helpful ideas and suggestions that do not apply just to first year couples

What if your partner or parent is traveling during the holidays?
Nice, quick read for when work gets in the way of the holidays and how to cope.

Holiday stress management for individuals with autism
Helpful and to the point.  provides a number of nice suggestions

Ideas for reducing stress around the holidays in children with autism
Creative and fun ideas.  Well worth a look!

Friendship Circles guide to holiday stress management for families with adult children and non-adult children with disabilities
Friendly and straightforward commonsense suggestions.

I sincerely hope that you find something here that you can use to ease the stress of the holidays, even if only a little.  Remember any reduction in stress at this time of year is good; the holidays do not need to be a dreaded time of year.  Go on and enjoy them and take care!

November 21, 2017

Celebrating Thanksgiving with Massive Resource Update!

Hello Everyone!
Image result for happy thanksgiving

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving!  The big holiday is almost here and I wanted to bring it in by saying how much I appreciate your support and involvement in helping me make my website, blog, and resource pages the best they can be!  I am very grateful.  As you may have noticed, there is no post for this month as I have been working extensively on adding more resources to the resource page.  Over 230 added and counting!  Please take some time to explore the page and let me know what you think.  I have included the same resource under multiple headings in some cases to highlight their services across different areas of need.  You may also note that I have included a "potpourri" heading at the bottom of the page to account for resources I have not yet identified a suitable parent heading for.  If you have any suggestions where they should go, tell me!  Also let me know if you do not see a resource that should be included as I am always happy to add it.  Again, thank you very much for your help and I hope you have a peaceful holiday!

Here is a link for you to use: Resource page