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!