Connecting With Teens With Special Needs

Most of what is said about connecting with teens assumes the teen you’re connecting with is typical (but really, what does typical even mean?). The fact is there are millions of teens across the U.S. who face some challenge or another. As the father of one of these teens, I thought it might be useful to talk a bit about how my son experiences the world, what he wants from life and how the people, institutions and businesses around him can help.

My son, who is 18 now, has struggled with developmental delays virtually his entire life. His motor skills and executive functioning aren’t great and when he was a kid his ability to regulate his behavior wasn’t good either. He has come a long way and I’m proud of him and I like him and I love him. It can be hard watching as he tries to make sense of the world and his place in it.

We’re fortunate to live in a great town, where the school district has been willing to do everything it can to provide support. That has meant my son has been “out of district” since he was in kindergarten. The schools he has attended have been fantastic but each of them has been in a different community. When he was young, that wasn’t such an issue; but as he grew older, that became a problem. Without friends in his hometown, he felt isolated and lonely. 



So one of the things to consider when thinking about teens with special needs is the fact that they may have fewer connections to the community than other kids. It might not be about going to school in another town. Sometimes the nature of a kid’s disabilities can make it hard for them to fit in or be accepted. Finding ways to bring kids into the community is really important but really tricky.

For my son, participating in “special needs” groups or activities doesn't cut it. He’s a smart and self-aware guy and sometimes he doesn’t want to be segregated. It’s hard, though; it’s obvious he has challenges and that can make some typical teens uncomfortable. It can be heart-wrenching to watch your kid try to initiate a conversation with a peer in a store or movie theater, only to be ignored, rebuffed or laughed at.

The fact is, he has many of the same interests as any other teenage boy. He plays way too many video games, likes to go to the movies, struggles to figure out girls, has to deal with an annoying boss and objects to almost everything I say. He wants so badly just to be accepted.

There are signs of hope. Beginning in September, he will be enrolled in a life-skills program in our town. For the first time since he was a toddler, he’ll be going to school with kids from his community and he’s elated. A big part of this program is focused on being a part of the community. Using local transportation, shopping in local stores, going to a local gym and working for a local business.

It’s great that the school district and business community can work together to create opportunities for kids like my son. The jobs these businesses offer aren’t sheltered workshops but are ones that match requirements with capabilities. That is a degree of engaging a teen with special needs that is super meaningful. It brings them in rather than keeping them apart. For my son that’s incredibly powerful.

Even a seemingly small gesture — greeting someone warmly (but not unnaturally), welcoming them, asking for their input and opinion — can make a world of difference. When my son heard about the program here in town, he was initially ambivalent but excited by the prospect. He was worried about leaving his current school and losing the connection to friends there. Once he met with the staff and learned more he was ready to make the move. 

As the possibilities of being connected to his community have sunk in, his mood has been lifted. Here’s a note he sent about the opportunity:

im feeling good i can see my future and i feel hope i haven't felt hope for almost the entire year i can see the path but i don't know my destonason  

It’s okay that he doesn’t know his destination. Who does? But it’s important that he can see a path forward, and that is something everyone should support.

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