By Rediet Kifle, M.S., CCC-SLP and Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP
Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to consider how our students form social and romantic connections. Recently, at one of our school sites, a therapist described a situation involving Jason, a 7th grade boy with high-functioning autism, and Cara, a girl in his class. While students were waiting for parents to pick them up from school, Jason’s aide observed him chasing Cara and saying that he wanted to give her a hug. Cara seemed visibly uncomfortable, and as Jason got closer to her, an adult intervened and separated them. Later on, Cara approached Jason’s aide and said she had felt very uncomfortable during this situation and unsure of what to do.
As a rule, teens and pre-teens are awkward and uncomfortable around issues of puberty, attraction to others, and sexuality. Even those with good social skills often feel tongue-tied, embarrassed, or unsure of how to express deeply personal feelings or react to someone else’s overtures. In a best-case scenario, young teens learn over time and manage to connect in spite of social stumbles.
However, young people with autism and other social or learning challenges face significant hurdles as they try to make romantic connections. They typically don’t have the advantage of learning “expected” behaviors by observing their peers. Like Jason, many teens are impulsive and have trouble reading social cues and understanding boundaries and hidden rules. Missing these cues and rules can easily lead to uncomfortable social blunders or even accusations of harassment.
As therapists, it’s important for us to support kids and teens who want to make social connections. Jason might not have chased Cara if he’d been taught that you need to ask for permission before giving someone a hug, holding their hand, or even sitting close to them. In the #MeToo era, teens and young adults are being taught that “yes means yes.” Assuming that physical touch or personal comments are acceptable because the other person doesn’t object is no longer ok. Young men and women are being taught that verbal consent is needed for everyone’s comfort and protection.
This situation was eye opening for Jason and has given the therapist supporting him a lot of ideas about exploring ways to handle romantic feelings. Building awareness, explaining hidden rules, and role-playing interpersonal scenarios can be a start and very helpful. Observing real-life social interactions and/or discussing situations observed on YouTube, TV shows, movies, and through current events can also build insight and create opportunities for teachable moments. Writing social stories and engaging in Social Behavior Mapping can help young people to better understand social norms and how their actions affect others.
Kari Dunn Buron’s book, A Five is Against the Law, uses a five-point scale of emotional reactivity to talk about behaviors that can have serious consequences. She addresses key issues of personal boundaries and potential legal consequences of unacceptable behaviors. For adolescents and young adults who have social and behavior challenges and/or anxiety in social situations, learning these rules could potentially save them from an accusation or arrest.
Talking about Valentine’s Day with your students can be an easy way to broach the topic of special friendships and romantic feelings. Take advantage of this opportunity to open the conversation and help them learn to connect in ways that will be welcomed!