Teenagers with special needs have a whole host of hidden difficulties that aren't often thought about or mentioned. Up until puberty and the growth spurt that comes with it, it was okay for these kids to be cute and lovable. They could hug their family members, classmates, or mostly anyone who was kind to them. Often kids with special needs misread people and think anyone who smiles at them or says a kind word to them is an instant friend. Not only is this not true but can also be dangerous.
When a person is given a properly administered IQ test and has a score or IQ below 70, s/he is in the bottom 2% of the population. A person with an IQ between 60-70 is on the approximate grade level of a third grade student. A third grade student is 8 or 9 years old. Therefore, a teenage or adult person with the mental age of 7 has scored the same amount of questions correct as a 7 year old first or second grade student.
Let's talk about seven year old children for a moment.
Socially, seven year old children want recognition for their individual achievements. They are not generally good sports when losing a game or even a sharing a preferred toy. Seven year old children are learning to stand up for their own rights but must be taught boundaries for self advocating. They want to be more independent. They are more critical of themselves and are critical of their own failure. They also become concerned with their own lack of skill and achievement.
Now let's take the traits of a seven year old and place them in the mind of a teenager with an IQ lower than 70. This teenager may speak clearly, be able to do simple
math equations well enough to balance a checkbook, and may be able to read on a second grade level. This teenager may look just like his or her same aged peers.
Up until middle school these teens were expected to be thankful and to express their gratitude. When they were younger it was perfectly acceptable to openly express their appreciation with big smiles and hugs. It was okay to feel safe by holding their caretakers hand. It was okay to sit on well known adults laps. Suddenly their bodies grow and hormones kick in just like their age equivalent peers and "OH NO!" These same expressions of gratitude are no longer appropriate! Let's keep in mind that people with lower IQ's take longer to learn to learn skills and proper behaviors than their age equivalent peers. So these skills and behaviors that were learned early on have been habituated and will be very difficult to change. Learned behaviors are not like academic skills that build on to each other, for example learning alphabet sounds, then applying phonics skills to create the basis for reading. Behaviors become habits which are very difficult to undo. Behaviors become deeply ingrained in the person's brain.
So now, this teenager who was once labelled sweet and affectionate is now labelled weird or perverse, or perhaps even dangerous! The special needs body has grown but their emotional and social growth has remained childlike. Special needs teens often don't know their own strength. their reactions to others is often the same as it was when they were seven years old but now it is isn't adorable or acceptable. Sadly, in reality these teens are victims of circumstance. They are not weird, or perverse, or dangerous. They simply haven't completed their learning on socially appropriate behavior yet.
This leaves the special needs teenager and soon to be, adult in a very vulnerable situation. most people in the world are not trained to see hidden disabilities. If a person is walking and talking and seemingly functioning as "normal", then to the untrained eye, this person is normal. It's an oxymoron of fortuity. Teens who are intellectually disabled often face teasing, taunts, abuse, and rejection by peers yet because they want to be accepted and have friends these teens think these "bullies" are their friends. They believe that their "friends" aren't laughing at them, they are laughing with them. Again, this is because since birth a smile has been a sense of approval.
Low intelligence coupled with limited social-emotional skills, lead to special needs teens missing important social cues. An example: Dorothy is an outgoing, kind 16 year old teenager. She is in Honor Society so volunteers her time to help in a self-contained special education classroom in her school . Dorothy helps Christopher in math. He is learning how to balance a checkbook. Christopher writes his first, perfect bank deposit slip. Dorothy gets excited, she smiles at Christopher and touches his shoulder to congratulate him. Christopher gets very excited and misreads Dorothy's cues. Christopher leans in and tries to kiss and hug Dorothy. Christopher gets reprimanded by his teacher. Dorothy who is embarrassed leaves the room. Again she unknowingly gives the wrong social cues by saying "It's all right Christopher.You did great!" Later, Christopher sees Dorothy at the playground with her friends. Christopher begins following Dorothy and her friends everywhere. At first Dorothy again gives misguided social cues to Christopher so that she doesn't hurt his feelings. She smiles and tells him to please stop following her. The smile tells Christopher that she likes him even though her words do not make sense. Eventually, Christopher follows Dorothy home, often. Christopher's parents believe he is safely hanging out at the local playground, because he returns home on time. He has been going to the playground his entire life. He is allowed to go alone because he is never a problem and can tell time so he knows when to walk home.They do not expect any problems because Christopher has always been kind to others. One day Dorothy and her parents decide that Christopher may be a threat. They call the police. Christopher now has a police record for stalking when in reality he was only misunderstanding social cues. This story is false but realistically special need teens face these hidden dangers everyday.
Another danger that intellectually challenged teens may face is their size and strength. They are not dangerous they just may not realize their own strength. An example is: Jane, who is an intellectually challenged seventeen year old. Jane has younger siblings who are ages three and six. Jane enjoys being with her siblings. Jane sees her parents playing with her siblings and wants to join in. When mom or dad is present Jane is reminded to be gentle. One day Mom is distracted by the mailman; Jane decides to help by pushing her three year old sister on the swing. Jane pushes too hard and her little sister Jacqueline flies off the swing. Jacqueline is not seriously hurt but Jane feels bad that her sister is crying. Jane also is worried that she will be in trouble with her mom for pushing the swing because she may only push it when a parent is watching. Again, this example is false.
It is very important that the special education teacher and team of psychologists, social workers, speech therapists, para-educators, and parents take the time to reteach socially appropriate strategies for the special needs teen. Going back to that seven year old mentality, of not being a good loser and difficulty taking criticism from adults, even constructive criticism, coupled with misreading social cues and not reeducating a special needs teen, is a recipe for disaster. Sadly, the person who is a victim in the end might be the teen who in reality is a gentle soul, with a pure heart, who either never learned socially acceptable responses to visual and verbal cues or is in the process of learning them. It seems unfair that an innocent baby is born with special needs, grows up with a loving heart, only to be the victim of a social misreading that places him or her and another person or persons in jeopardy. Remember please if you are a parent or person working with a special needs teen, the importance and value of teaching and modelling age appropriate behaviors that will keep this good-natured teen safe.