Special Teens

When is a teen with special needs being a “teen” and when is s/he being “special”?

That is a quandary that many parents of teens with special needs find themselves in. Think about it – teens can be moody, unpredictable, in their own world, extreme in their responses – different.   When you add special needs on top of all that, how is a parent to cope?

I often think that the first sign that my daughter Adina was becoming a teenager was when she refused to let me cut her bangs – starting right after her bat mitzvah. Her beautiful honey-colored, straight hair became a “curtain” that she very quickly realized was handy to hide behind. (Teen or Special needs?)

Adina fell in love with John Travolta, discovering Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter.  She decided to change her name to Vinnie and refuses to answer to Adina – even gets insulted when you use her “real” name. (Teen or Special needs?)

This week she brought a friend home directly from school without checking with me first. (Teen?) She then got tired of said friend after an hour, wanting her to go home already. (Special needs?)

Adina’s immediate response to any uncomfortable situation is to cry. All along I thought that was definitely special needs since I figured she cries because it’s hard for her to verbalize her feelings. (Special needs?) Then someone told me how her typical daughters spend a lot of time crying. (Teen?).

When they enter their teenage years kids with special needs are learning independence and forging their identity just like typical teens. But unlike their typical peers they do not have the resources to cope with the challenges of adolescence. Where does that leave us parents? We try to navigate this tricky territory together with our kids and let me tell you, it aint easy.

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Yoni’s Pride: Today’s Counselor, Tomorrow’s Citizen

Reposted from Zeh Lezeh, For One Another, the blog of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a supporter of Shutaf vocational programs for teens.

Yoni’s face lit up as he described a challenging experience during Shutaf’s Hannukah inclusion camp in late December. “Yoni dealt with a child who was having a tough day and needed to be outside much of the day,” explains Moriah, a social work student and teen advisor. Daily meetings with Moriah and the rest of the teen staff cover strategies for coping with the stresses of a busy day working with 12 active and lively campers, ages 6-14, 75% of whom have some sort of special need. “He wanted to be outside…I also like being outside,” explains Yoni, continuing, “and I saw that it was good for him.”

Yoni, who is 17 and has special needs, is a member of the Shutaf Young Leadership and Ruderman Vocational Training Program in Israel. During the year, this inclusive group of teens – ages 16-21 – enjoys a variety of age-appropriate activities.  Yoni just started the personal safety and empowerment section of this year’s program with El Halev, an organization that specializes in self-defense training for women as well as special populations. In the spring, the teens will take part in a culinary training segment which will include planning, preparing, packaging and selling a food product – all important skills toward developing confident and capable young adults who can successfully navigate in the greater society.

His mother Susan is so pleased that he can take part in the program. “He’s learning and doing practical things and having a good time socially…nowhere else can he get these opportunities,” she remarked. She is delighted that Shutaf has taken an interest in teens with special needs, adding, “he’s pleased and proud to be a counselor.”

Shutaf’s Program Director, Elizabeth Corlin, detailed a conversation she had with El Halev’s trainer, Emouna. “She has already seen a difference in Yoni this year…He’s toughening up and learning how to say no as well as how to whack the heck out of the punching bag,” she said with a smile.” All important skills for this quiet, shy and thoughtful teen. He wanted, needed and deserved more than just going to school and not having social outlets as well as a way of preparing for his future.”

Creating opportunities, learning self-advocacy, making new friends, and feeling in charge of one’s life – in an atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance. For all Shutaf teens – with and without special needs – it’s a fantastic experience.