Program Length: 8 Lessons
Age Group: 13-18
Author: Nancy Nowell, MPA, MEd, CSE
Understanding High School Relationships for Youth with Autism and Learning Disabilities
Teens with autism and intellectual disabilities want friends and romantic connections, just like their peers – but face extra challenges in developing these relationships. Many lack basic social skills and have difficulty understanding social signals. This often leaves them lonely and isolated, making them at higher risk for crossing social and legal boundaries or being victims of abuse.
The innovative Mike’s Crush curriculum/video program teaches these young people how to establish healthy and safe relationships with their peers, including friendship and romantic relationships.
Mike’s Crush contains 8 lessons that cover many aspects of middle and high school social interactions. For example, students learn how to identify positive and negative body language, recognize when peers do (or don’t) want to be friends, and understand social and legal lines that must not be crossed.
Mike’s Crush uses research-based teaching strategies that are recommended for students on the autism spectrum. These include visual learning techniques such as video modeling and video self-modeling along with role-playing and other interactive methods.
A key instructional tool is the engaging two part video story (Mike’s Crush) that demonstrates all the pieces of a social interaction puzzle, including communication, body language, friendship, hygiene, and personal space. Through exaggerated examples, the video illustrates how a teen can incorrectly “read” a social situation, as well as how to respond appropriately.
Used together, the lessons, videos and activities help students learn and practice new social behaviors in the safe environment of a classroom.
The Mike’s Crush curriculum is versatile and easy to teach. It is written for use by a variety of school personnel as well as by professionals and group leaders in the community. Instructors can use the lessons as written, adapt them, or use the videos alone to problem-solve relationship issues that are occur in their classrooms.
The curriculum includes everything needed to teach the course:
- 114 page Manual with detailed teaching instructions
- Lesson plans, assessments, reproducible handouts, quizzes and other teaching tools.
- 2 video stories and 5 supplementary video segments.
The Mike’s Crush curriculum was developed as a direct result of needs expressed by middle and high school students with disabilities, their parents, and teachers.
The goal of the program is to provide these students with the knowledge and skills needed for healthy relationships with their peers, including romantic relationships.
Why this is important
All people who want romantic relationships make mistakes, but ideally, they learn from their mistakes. For many teens who have autism or other disabilities, this learning is hindered because they cannot read the social signals that their peers are sending. If their peers do not want friendship or romance, this often leads to confusion, misunderstandings or more serious consequences.
We know that it is safer for high school students to make these mistakes when there are supports available at home and in school. Young adults who have fewer safety nets can lose their jobs, and be charged as adults in the criminal justice system when they make the same mistakes.
Since extreme forms of sexual harassment and stalking are illegal, all students with disabilities need to understand relational boundaries, laws, and consequences. Other types of sexual harassment and stalking are not against the law, but have real consequences in a high school setting.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also know that people with disabilities are victims of sexual abuse and abuse at a far higher rate than their non-disabled peers.
After completing the Mike’s Crush curriculum (video and lessons), students will be able to:
- Identify the right and wrong social skills presented in the two videos.
- Define vocabulary words included in each lesson.
- Describe why appearance and hygiene matter in school.
- Identify and define different types of relationships.
- Demonstrate how to start a conversation and get to know someone.
- Identify and describe how a peer looks when he or she is not interested in talking to you or getting to know you.
- Recognize and describe sexual harassment, stalking, and abusive and illegal behavior.
- Recognize and demonstrate safe and healthy relationships, including what to do if you are being stalked or harassed.
This curriculum takes a multifaceted approach to teaching these skills based on current research and best practices for students with autism and other special needs students.*
Because these students are visual learners, video peer modeling and video self modeling (VSM) are the most important teaching techniques. Also essential are role playing and practicing new skills that assist teens with generalizing their learning to other situations outside of the classroom. Finally, a wide variety of interactive teaching methods are necessary because these students need to repeatedly practice the same material.
* “An emerging body of research demonstrates great promise for the use of video modeling (peer or adult as model) and video self-modeling (VSM) as a therapeutic modality for individuals with ASD.” “These teaching techniques are effective interventions strategies for addressing social-communication skills, behavioral function, and functional skills in children and adolescents with ASD. Specifically, these procedures promote skill acquisition and skills acquired via video modeling and VSM are maintained over time and transferred across person and settings.”
Bellini, S. (2006). Building Social Relationships: A Systematic Approach to Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Difficulties, APC Autism Asperger Publishing Co. Shawnee Mission: Kansas
Video Modeling: Bad Day and Good Day
Key resources for the curriculum are the two Mike’s Crush videos, written and produced specifically for the program. The videos help students discover the difference between incorrect and appropriate social behavior.
The videos use professional actors to demonstrate over-the-top examples of BAD DAY scenarios that are easily recognized and realistic in a high school environment. The same school, students, and scenarios are then replaced with what a GOOD DAY would look like, including role modeling a better way to approach relationships.
Video #1 Mike’s Very Bad Day is an extreme example of how teens should NOT behave if they have a crush on a girl at school. Throughout the video, other students tell Mike that what he is doing is not useful, but he does not listen. This video also shows some consequences of not following the rules and laws that apply to “romantic relationships” and how a victim of stalking feels.
Video #2 Mike’s Good Day at School dramatizes how a healthy and positive relationship develops over time, providing a positive role model of a high school crush. The GOOD DAY scenario gives concrete examples of better ways to approach relationships, and demonstrates situations that can be used as models when developing a friendship.
Both videos have been written to be entertaining but make the point that there is a right way and a wrong way to develop a romantic relationship.
How to use the course
This curriculum is appropriate for youth with a wide range of disabilities including autism, intellectual, and learning disabilities.
The lessons are written for use by many types of instructors including health teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, nurses, or social workers, depending on the students and the structure of the school. The course is also recommended for use by therapists, disability organizations, and socialization groups outside the structure of a school.
Lessons should be taught to small groups of students with similar needs. This information is best taught slowly, in small groups and with only students with disabilities in the classroom.
Although the curriculum is eight lessons, learning the material correctly takes time and practice. In fact, the lessons are most effective when taught over a period or months, not weeks.
Teachers can use the lessons as written, adapt them, or use the videos alone. It is up to each teacher to determine what specific information is relevant to the students, what skills the students are able to master, and how much time will be needed to discuss and practice the material in this curriculum.
- Teaching Model
- Goal of the Program
- Learning Objectives
How to Use the Videos
- DVD Menu
- Mike’s Very Bad Day
- Mike’s Good Day at School
- Paired Segments
- Extras Menu
- Description of Lessons and Videos
How to Use This Curriculum
- Families and Caregivers
- Class Composition/Class Size/Time Frame/Handouts
- Using Video Modeling and Video Self-Modeling (VSM)
- Peer Video Modeling Resources
Lesson 1: Introduction
- Class rules
Lesson 2: Appearance Matters
- Good grooming and dress
Lesson 3: Relationships
- Understanding high school relationships
Lesson 3: Body Language
- Positive, negative, and romantic body language
Lesson 4: Starting a Conversation
- How to start a conversation
- Identifying common interests
- Identifying when someone does and does not want to talk to you
Lesson 5: Getting to Know Someone
- Listening skills
- Talking to peers
- How to get to know someone better
Lesson 6: Rules and Laws
- Understanding rules and laws
- NO means NO
Lesson 7: What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
- Understanding healthy relationships
- Write a script about healthy relationships
Table of Contents
Nancy Nowell, MPA, MEd, CSE
Certified Sexuality Educator
Over the course of Ms. Nowell’s career she has worked with people who have disabilities of all ages; from infants through adults, in both residential and school settings, with families and self-advocates. In recent years she became concerned with the high rate of sexual assault experienced by all people with disabilities and learned how few resources were available.
After graduating with a degree in Human Sexuality Education from Widener University in 2002 she obtained additional training in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), victims of sexual assault, consent, problematic and sexual offending behavior.
Each of these areas requires a specialized knowledge and skills when working with people who have learning or intellectual disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum. She founded Social Signals to develop educational materials designed that provide a structured, specialized approach to common adolescent and young adult relationship issues.
Ms. Nowell’s Training and Experience
- Over 35 years working with children, adolescents, and adults who are on the autism spectrum or have intellectual disabilities.
- Masters Degree in Human Sexuality Education
- Certified Sexuality Educator
- Currently teaching in 25 classrooms across the Philadelphia area
- Nine years teaching middle and high school students who have autism, Asperger’s, and intellectual disabilities about; puberty, boundaries, relationships, understanding your body, sexual abuse risk reduction, relationship rules and laws.
- 2007 Emerging Professional Award from the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) and the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
What Others Have to Say
YouthBuild, Schenectady, NY
“I asked the students if they felt like they actually learned anything from the whole process – A few of them were pretty positive that it really had made a difference for them in how they handle things now. One said that she felt that participating in the group had given her perspective. Now, instead of just “buggin” when she and her girlfriend get into it – she backs off and gives the situation more time. She says she feels like she is more in control, that after allowing for some time and distance she is able to speak more calmly and actually gets her point across.
We have one young man was incredibly insightful during the lessons. He always offered up good objective thoughts as well as his personal opinion on many topics. He was truly able to discern between attraction/love or infatuation/love; but the ones that stand out the most are during the Decide, Don’t Slide (9) and Let’s Talk About Sex (10) lessons. A lot of the other students age-wise are much older than he is, but were acting somewhat immature, or simply not taking it as seriously. He said this lesson really got him thinking about what he’s done, and what he wants a real relationship to look like. When the other students continued with some of the off-color jokes, he firmly stated: (paraphrased) “Fine you go ahead and do all that. It’s your funeral. You’ll either end up killing the relationship or killing yourself with AIDS. All I know is the sex I have is far more meaningful with a partner I love; it’s making, really creating our physical love from the love in our heart, not just having sex.”
From parenting teens in San Marcos, Texas:
“I learned how to work out problems about my child and about myself.”
“I’ve liked it because they talked to us about how to calm down when we have problems and how to go back to having a conversation. They’ve also taught us that physical abuse is not a good relationship. They also showed us the different stages kids go through and how to support them.”
“I liked that they talked about how to have a healthy relationship and how to know when to end or continue the relationship.”
Quotes from parenting teens in Texas taking the Love Notes Class
Increased Knowledge Regarding Healthy Relationships
“A big thing for me was that me and my boyfriend had a lot of problems and this program helped me because [facilitators] showed me I don’t have to live like that. I don’t have to take all of that from him just because I have a baby.”
Improved Communication and Conflict Resolution Skills
“I talk to him, I don’t hit him, I try to sit down and listen. We don’t really argue anymore, but when we do, I just say don’t get mad, stop and let’s talk. And now we just sit and he just calms down and we will take a couple of minutes and we will talk and everything will be okay again.”
“With this group, it helps us stay in school, helps us open our eyes to healthy relationships. It helps us get what we need to grow in ourselves, and also grow in our families, and grow in our children. And also, like I don’t know, it gives us hope!”
“I would first like to say thank you for allowing me to join your class. I learned a lot during class, it helped me see things I would not have otherwise.
“I was able to ask some questions that would have been awkward to ask my parents. It has helped me realize that even if you’re in a relationship for a long period of time, the use of condoms does not mean you or your loved one is cheating its – just to protect the both of you from unwanted pregnancy and STIs.I love that you can go to class and be yourself; talk about anything.
“This class has helped me learn the warning signs of physical mental and verbal abuse that I had no idea about and that had happened to me. Now I know it was wrong and will not let that happen to me again.When the class ended I didn’t let my learning experience end there. I kept my book and I go over it with my kids. I had no clue of this stuff when I was younger so I am very thankful from the bottom of my heart to been a part of your class and given the tools to be able to learn from this experience and pass it on to my kids. Once again, thank you”
Love Notes Participant
PREP Grant, Adult Preparation Topics
I frequently use Love Notes curriculum with girls at the Journey Home. Since they are navigating through dating and relationships out of treatment the content is relatable. I have found that it is valuable for the girls in recognizing red flags with potential love interest as well as what a mature relationship should look like.
Kim England M.S., ACMHC
The Journey Home-Program Director
Residential Therapy High School
ChildBuilders recently received a grant to reach Head Start children, teachers, and parents with our programs. Just about the same time we were notified our proposal was funded, a special package arrived at our office. Inside was copy of the new Love Notes curriculum, which we eagerly read from first to last page.
As soon as we read Love Notes, we knew it would be more appropriate for this population. We consulted with our contacts at the Head Start provider organizations, who also reviewed the curriculum and agreed 100%.
We then gave the curriculum to several parents to review for cultural and linguistic fit, and here are some of the responses the parents gave to our questions:
Do you think this program will be helpful for Early Head Start/Head Start parents? Why?
“Yes, because it teaches people what to look for in a relationship and what to expect.”
“This lesson will help us to break some cycles, wrong choices in dating, trouble in serial relationships, baby mama drama. I think it would be helpful for someone in a dangerous relationship.”
Do you think this curriculum is useful for people from your culture?
“I think it would be good for any culture because everyone needs a healthy relationship.”
And best of all: “I think it could be helpful to the world.”
Janet Pozmantier, ChildBuilders, Houston, TX