Relationships first – disability second

Friendship and relationships enrich our lives

People with autism, disability or brain injury face the same issues as other people when it comes to relationships. Friendship is important. And the desire to love and be loved, whether as a friend or an intimate companion, is a drive that defines a person in a way that no disability ever can. These needs are impossible to ignore. Once this fact is acknowledged and accepted, the task of gaining the skills and rules that help us to form relationships and to make them a positive force in our lives may begin.

Although, these days, some information about relationships is covered in personal development subjects at school, the principal source of knowledge for most people and the major influence on their behaviour will come from the significant others in their lives (parents, family, carers and peers) and the media.

Some people benefit from receiving information about friendships, relationships and sexuality in a more structured supportive environment and in a way that they understand. Being comfortable with one’s feelings and to have one’s sexuality respected and acknowledged increases an individual’s confidence and self-esteem.

It is empowering to understand the spoken and unspoken rules about dating and relating to friends, housemates and colleagues. Simple friendship skills, such as taking turns to talk and listen to the other person, rather than to dominate a conversation, can increase the chance to form friendships and to allow them to grow.

Opportunities to develop relationships and learning from mistakes can be positive

Relationships whether personal or at work are a risky business. Some flourish while others don’t. Failure can be tough but in most cases people are able to learn from their experience and move on. Relationships can, of course, also be successful and when they do they become a special and fulfilling part of our lives.

A person with autism, disability or brain injury can sometimes need extra support to help them take advantage of potential social and employment opportunities.

Individuals are more likely to reach their relationships goals and to develop to their full potential when they have the knowledge and experience they need to succeed.

To encourage a family member or client to take a risk can be a concern to those whose instinct is to protect them from harm. This is understandable.

I have ten years’ experience counselling and providing training in relationships and sexuality to people with disability, family members and support staff. For over twenty years I’ve worked with people with disability in education, employment, residential, legal rights and recreational settings. It is this experience backed by qualifications in Special Education, and in Relationships Counselling that informs my work.

Getting started

My starting point is to talk with the client, members of their family and/or support staff to understand the client’s personal goals. Sometimes I will use the Assessment of Sexuality Knowledge (ASK) to determine gaps in the client’s knowledge. This helps me to develop counselling and education goals. The ASK usually takes two sessions.

The sessions following assessment involve a combination of therapy and education techniques including structured activities, worksheets and short segments from educational and training DVDs. Follow up actions between sessions are recommended to reinforce a client’s understanding of relevant concepts, skills or information.

I may also provide education and case management for staff and family to help them to support people to achieve their relationship and sexuality goals.