Adolescence is one of the most important developmental stages, with significant changes occurring in the social, physical and emotional aspects of a person’s life. Teenagers with diverse needs physically develop and have sexual and romantic feelings just as other young people their age. However, for many of them, their psychological and social maturity does not keep pace with their physical maturity. When the teenager is perceived as being physically mature, consideration of his or her level of social development can be overlooked, and this disparity can cause difficulties for the teenager. According to research done by Tony Attwood, many teenagers with diverse needs feel that they are frequently rejected, and even humiliated and ridiculed by their peers. Some will experience an intense loneliness and have great difficulty integrating with others within their social circle. This can ultimately impact on the student’s self-esteem and emotional wellbeing.
Why social situations challenging?
- The environment may have too much or too little sensory stimuli e.g., too noisy, not enough space, too many distractions, not enough light.
- They may find social interactions difficult e.g., understanding facial expressions, sarcasm, metaphors, unspoken social rules, slang language.
- It may take the teenager an extended period of time to process and respond to what is being said.
- They may feel different from their peers.
- They may have little or no experience in forming friendships or relationships. It is difficult to develop an intimate relationship if you have never had a friend.
- Difficulty expressing themselves and understanding others point of view.
However, this does not mean that they are not interested in establishing relationships.
It is important to teach our teenagers the requisite skills and strategies support them as they develop relationships and understand their own sexuality, this includes how to:
- Discover the value of friendships and how some friendships can evolve into more intimate relationships.
- Promote health, safety and abuse prevention.
- Reduce confusion and uncertainty.
- Increase knowledge, self-advocacy and assertiveness.
- Develop positive values and a moral framework that will guide their decisions and behaviours
- Communicate about feelings, relationships and sexual matters.
- Understand sexual health and associated risks.
- Develop confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.
- Be aware of and enjoy their sexuality.
- Behave safely, responsibly and appropriately within relationships.
- Be able to access help and support.
- Have an awareness of what abuse may look like and develop the skills to enable them to protect themselves against abuse and against abusing others.
Understanding relationships begins with educating the teenager about their self-concept and developing friendship skills. At GUILD, we believe in creating a safe space where our students can learn about some of these concepts. We provide our students opportunities where they can interact with peers of their age and create friendships. We collaborate with different schools to develop the concept of buddy system which has not only helped our students learn about social boundaries, how to have a conversation, how to make friends and sustain relationships but, this has also helped students from our partner schools to learn about how to interact with people with diverse needs, being patient, kind and understanding. We have seen some amazing bond that have been created through this process.
We also encourage our students to explore the fun part of being a teenager through our GUILD Social Club, where once a month we plan for different activities like going to café, bowling, museum visits where we all can have fun while being a part of the society without the fear of being judged. Hanging out with friends after school and on the weekends is a vital part of a teen’s social life. Some of these activities that promote social and recreational activities have helped our students to explore different interests, develop skills and build confidence. It has also helped to create social connections and a sense of belonging. Instead of shutting them down and keeping them confined to their own little groups, let them fly, let them explore and you will see the magic too.
Below are some books for parents and educators that may help:
§ What’s Happening to Tom: A book about puberty for boys and young men with autism and related conditions (Sexuality and Safety with Tom and Ellie) by Kate E Reynolds (2014) Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK
§ What’s Happening to Ellie: A book about puberty for girls and young women with autism and related conditions (Sexuality and Safety with Tom and Ellie) by Kate E Reynolds (2014) Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK
§ Things Tom Likes: A book about sexuality and masturbation for boys and young men with autism and related conditions ) by Kate E Reynolds (2015) Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK
§ Things Ellie Likes: A book about sexuality and masturbation for girls and young women with autism and related conditions ) by Kate E Reynolds (2015) Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK
§ Busy Bodies: A book about puberty for you and your parents, by The Health Promotion Department, HSE South (2008), HSE South
§ Sexuality and Severe Autism: A practical guide for parents, caregivers and health educators, by Kate E Reynolds (2013) Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK