October 06, 2015

Sex and dating for teens with developmental disabilities

Behind the Book by

Cammie McGovern's debut YA novel, Say What You Will, told the honest and heartbreaking love story of a girl with cerebral palsy and a boy with obsessive-compulsive disorder. With her new novel, A Step Toward Falling, McGovern once again drives straight to readers' hearts with a tale that unfolds through alternating viewpoints of classmates Emily and Belinda.

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Cammie McGovern's debut YA novel, Say What You Will, told the honest and heartbreaking love story of a girl with cerebral palsy and a boy with obsessive-compulsive disorder. With her new novel, A Step Toward Falling, McGovern once again drives straight to readers' hearts with a tale that alternates between the voices of classmates Emily and Belinda. During a high school football game, Emily witnesses an attack on Belinda, who has developmental disabilities, but doesn't report the incident, and neither does fellow witness and football player Lucas. Both Emily and Lucas are sent to do community service at the Lifelong Learning Center for young adults with developmental disabilities, where they find opportunities to grow beyond their preconceptions.

In a Behind the Book essay, McGovern shares the inspiration behind this unforgettable story.

The idea for A Step Toward Falling really began when Ethan, my 18-year-old son with autism, came home from school and announced that he wanted to ask Alexandra, a friend in his Life Skills class, to the “Best Buddies Prom.” It was a thrilling moment—a giant first that, truthfully, his dad and I never expected. Ethan, who’d never talked about girls before, was interested enough in one to put on a suit and uncomfortable shoes and take her somewhere? It’s a breakthrough! we thought, and then we began to wonder: Was it really? Was it even fair to encourage Ethan—with all his limitations and the frustration born of those limitations—to start a relationship with a girl who was hardly ready to handle one of his meltdowns? Can young adults with cognitive disabilities handle the complicated, messy morass of real dating?

Around the same time, Whole Children/Milestones, a recreation center for children with disabilities that I helped start, began offering a class called “Boundaries and Relationships” for young adults. The idea was to address the very question I was now facing with Ethan—teach students with cognitive impairment about developing healthy relationships and sexuality. Even as a parent who has emphasized widening my son’s world as much as possible, I wondered about encouraging these young adults to enter into relationships and even—gulp!—have active sex lives. Many of them talked about dating movie stars, musicians and characters they knew from TV shows. I wanted to pull the teachers aside and point out the obvious: You’re saying these folks should turn around and date each other? Beyond the most clear-cut concerns related to sex—pregnancy, STDs, sexual victimization—there were also the less clear-cut ones: If their ideal dates are Justin Beiber and Kelly Clarkson, how could they do anything but hurt each other’s feelings?

After talking to the teachers of the class at some length, I began to change my mind. I learned that sex—and all of its awkward logistics—was a very small part of their curriculum. “This class is about how people develop caring relationships,” Brian Melanson, one of the teachers, explained. “It’s about learning the art of back-and-forth conversation and finding shared pleasures. It’s also about learning to appreciate one another and depend on each other. Can most young adults with disabilities learn to do this? Absolutely! Should they? Absolutely!”

Most people might agree with this sentiment but pause at including sex in that picture. Melanson was unequivocal: “If both parties are interested, informed and consenting, then yes, it should definitely include sex. These folks are left out of many stepping stones toward independent lives: going to college, living on their own, even holding a job. Sex is a pleasure that, responsibly undertaken, should be available to them just as it’s available to all the rest of us.” As a parent, I blanched. But I also thought: He’s right.

 The more time I spent with this teacher and this group of students, the more convinced I became—especially as I got to know one young woman who became the inspiration for Belinda, one of the main characters in A Step Toward Falling. Admittedly she appealed to me at first because instead of picking a pop singer as her ideal boyfriend, she stood, pushed her glasses up on her nose and announced, “Mr. Darcy played by Colin Firth in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice would be my first choice for a boyfriend. My second choice, I guess, would be Mr. Bingley.”

Wait a minute, I thought. This woman has Down Syndrome and the same fantasy boyfriends as me?

Eventually I came to realize this is what happens when you get to know any group of people you once thought you had little in common with. The walls fall down; the lines blur. As I sat in on a few more sessions of Boundaries and Relationships, I found I had to stop myself from screaming “I know exactly what you mean!” from my observer’s spot in the back as one participant after another struggled to articulate what they found difficult about the dating process.

At one point, I sat with my new friend who turned out to have a little trouble talking about anything except Pride and Prejudice. Still, I marveled at how well she understood Austen’s message. “People shouldn’t judge other people by the way they look or seem at first. That’s what Pride and Prejudice is about,” she loudly proclaimed to a lobby full of her peers who weren’t paying attention. Her social skills might have been off, but her analysis was not.

The more I talked to her, the more I realized how right the teacher of this class was. Drawn toward the romantic ideals they’ve watched for years on movies and on TV, young adults with intellectual disabilities want to participate in the stories they’ve seen play out on screen. Sex is part of that. Without the knowledge of what’s involved and the vocabulary to discuss it, they are far more likely to get drawn into situations where they might be victimized. The statistics bear this out and I wanted my story to reflect this.

A Step Toward Falling begins when Emily and Lucas, two high school seniors focused on their own problems, fail to intervene when they witness Belinda, a developmentally disabled classmate, being attacked. Obligated to volunteer in a Boundaries and Relationships class, they gradually begin to see the ways the differences between themselves and their classmates blur. They come to the same realization I have: Ability and disability is a long continuum that we all have a spot on, and the desires we share in common far outweigh the differences that divide us. 


Photo credit Ellen Augarten.

Cammie McGovern

Get the Book

A Step Toward Falling

A Step Toward Falling

By Cammie McGovern
ISBN 9780062271136

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