What To Expect: There is something powerfully profound about the romantic connections of special needs teens and young adults. While in the public school system our daughter had her crushes but no real chances to experience the fun of mutual flirtation. At the age of sixteen all this changed when she became a student at a special education boarding school.
Matching Up: One of the happiest moments of my whole life, truly, was learning that our daughter had a boyfriend. After six or so months at the new school, she met her Romeo. Dorm staff informed me that this is characteristic of the experience of many of their students; for the first time in their lives, they find someone with whom they match up. Watching this unfold from the sidelines was as heady and touching as anything I will ever experience. And it wasn’t just our family who felt this way. The young man’s parents joined us in this celebration of our children’s first experience in mutual love.
Inclusion and Exclusion: When we embarked on this special needs journey, our daughter age three, our school system exalted “inclusion” as the educational model best suited for children with developmental delays. The notion is that they learn best amongst their peers, though they are not actually learning at the same rate and with a very modified curriculum. Did it work? Yes and No. Our daughter, for one, did absorb a great deal of socialization skills from her peers, with a lot of facilitation from faculty. But the no is the social “exclusion” outside the school building. No real best friends or buddies, no phone pals, not really. And the probability that her awareness of the social and educational differences between herself and her “peers” contributed to a significant level of anxiety that complicated much of her life and her family’s life for many years.
Pre-Teen and Teen: I am not rewriting this script. Nor plagued by regrets. However, what has impressed me both from anecdotal information that drifts in from other families over the years and our own experience, is that inclusion peters out when puberty sets in. The striving for friends and boyfriend/girlfriend possibilities presses down on our special needs children as much as it does on our typical children. Therefore, when our daughter moved into a setting where friends and romance were real options, she blossomed socially, learned better and became a happier person.
Today: Our daughter called this afternoon to report on her weekend. She and her new Facebook friend conversed on the phone about their families. She learned that he had siblings and nephews, and that he had broken up with someone recently. She said to me, “I told him that I felt really bad for him. Because I know how that feels.” Her empathy was authentic. She does know how it feels and I am so grateful for that. I asked her, “What would you want to write in the blog today”? She said “Say that I talked with a new friend today. And that yesterday I talked with an old friend.”
Friend Is The Operative Word: Real friends, true peers, real romance, breakups and new possibilities. What had been painfully missing years ago is now a normal part of her life. In a world of her peers our daughter has become her personal best. I bless the day we found that school. Truly do.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011