“It can be really hard for a teenager to find a social circle when she can’t do the slumber party because she needs a parent or caregiver with her and she can’t just ride in her friend’s car to the mall.” – Linda
Children with disabilities or special health care needs often need a little extra support to find their place in the tricky world of high school. Linda actively supported her daughter, Amy, who is now in her 20s, has a master’s degree, and is active in her community’s art, dance, and theater scene. And Jan, whose son has autism, found help for him through recreation therapy with great therapists.
Starting when Amy was very little, Linda found ways to help Amy follow her interests. Amy was in art and science camps, dance classes, and the Girl Scouts. You can see some of Linda’s suggestions for making these sorts of activities work in her article, “Finding Activities that Work for Your Child.”
As a freshman in high school, Amy didn’t immediately know how she fit in. But then she found her place in theater. “I had a great theater teacher who got me involved in her program,” Amy says. “There were all kinds of different kids in theater, with and without disabilities, and I was just part of the group.
Other students who aren’t interested in theater might find their place in things like art classes, keeping score for a sports team, joining the band, working with A/V equipment, in a chess club or other school clubs, or by taking photos for the school paper.
Or they might connect with other teens and find their place in activities outside of school. Amy used Girl Scouts and her church youth group to connect with other teenagers: “For years, my friends from Girl Scouts had seen what it took to plan an activity that was accessible for me. They became my advocates and made sure other school friends would plan activities that would work for me so I could be included.”
It can take some very open conversations up front to figure out how to make activities work for teens or young adults with disabilities or special health care needs. When Amy went to Girl Scout camps, Linda would very clearly outline what Amy was going to need from the staff there. Helping any teacher or group leader understand your child’s needs and abilities is important before the activity or program starts. Otherwise, the activity leader might expect the teen or young adult to do things that are outside of their abilities.
Linda stayed involved in and out of Amy’s school. Linda says, “Volunteers run activities outside of school like scouting or church groups. They don’t always want to put in extra time re-planning events so they’re accessible. I made sure I was always on the planning committee so that they’d be accessible from the start. I also got a job substitute teaching 2 or 3 days a year at Amy’s school so that I could observe extracurricular and social opportunities too.”
Some other places that might help a teenager or young adult find social outlets include: programs at the YMCA, 4H, or activities designed specifically for children with disabilities. See our [Finding Activities That Work for Your Child](link to: Finding Activities That Work for Your Child blog) article for some ideas that have worked for other families. You and your child could also find or start a Meetup group. Meetup groups offer ways for people with common interests to find each other. There are groups for just about anything your child might be interested in. But we recommend you always think about safety. Make sure groups meet in public places, and maybe have someone who you trust go with your child until you know who else will be there.
You and your child can also use our site to find services, groups, and events near you.
Some teens or young adults need extra help finding activities that fit their interests and abilities. They might also need to build skills to be able to take part in those activities. And they might be at the point where they don’t want a parent to go everywhere with them.
In that case, recreation therapy can be so helpful.
“I’m a huge fan of using recreation therapy,” says Jan. “My son started when he was 11 years old. He learned to kayak and roller skate. The ship had already sailed on me teaching him those things. His therapist helped him build social skills through those activities, and then she trained his attendants on how to do those activities with him.”
A recreation therapist will work with your child to help figure out their interests and abilities, find community activities that match these, and take your child out into the community to do them. They can join in the activity to teach your child or go with them and just observe (only stepping in to help when needed). They might pair your child with other teens or young adults with some of the same interests.
“There is a young man who I’ve taken to the gym and taught to work out,” says Jole, (a recreation therapist). “He sees people there every day who say hi and talk to him, helping him practice his social skills. I also find meetup groups for other activities he’s interested in so he’s more likely to find friends for the long run.”
If your child is getting special education services, they might be able to get recreation therapy services through school. You can ask the school to do an evaluation to see if they can get recreation therapy as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Your child’s special education teachers or assistants might also have good ideas about activities to try. Recreation therapy is also covered under the CLASS waiver. You can also see our page on Funding and Grants for Children with Disabilities for ideas on finding organizations that offer grants or scholarships that might help pay for recreation therapy.
If your teen can’t get recreation therapy paid for through a waiver or school, there are some other creative ways to get help finding activities. For example, a well-trained attendant might be able to help your child with activities. Or you can call or email a college with a recreation therapy program like: Alvin Community College, Austin Community College, Texas State University, or the University of North Texas for help. College students enrolled in special education or behavior management programs might have ideas––or they might want to volunteer or take a part-time job with your family to help your child with activities. If you have built a personal network of other adults and friends who are involved in your child’s life, you can ask them for help and ideas, too.
While it might take a little extra planning and support, if your child can find activities and build relationships as early as high school, that can set the stage for them to have a richer, connected adult life.