Unfounded Apprehension

We’ve recently had a new youth group making use of the Church Centre on Friday evenings. The group is for young people with learning difficulties/mental handicaps and they have been together for some time, but the leadership has recently changed along with the venue. The management of the group has now been taken on by the CrossLinks Centre, and a new team of group leaders has been assembled and the group is now in full flow.

The week before last was my first opportunity to meet the group. I was very apprehensive, and had little idea of what to expect. Whilst I’ve got plenty of youth work experience from the ages of 8 to 25, I’ve never had the opportunity to work with young people with learning difficulties. My apprehension wasn’t eased by the fact that all three staff on duty that night were first-timers with this group (not ideal – but circumstance dictated that’s how it would be).

I arrived early and helped to set-up the table-tennis, table-football, magnetic darts, snooker, stereo and tuck shop. Then before I knew it the group members started to arrive and the introductions began. Within minutes there were 12 new names/faces to remember, 12 new personalities to get to know and 12 very different individuals with different mental/physical/emotional difficulties. Soon the apprehension had disappeared and the fun began.

Some of the young people were very shy, and seemingly happy to stand near the corner of the room alone; others were outgoing and always trying to get the attention of others in the group; some were made good use of the equipment around the hall; others sat listening to music and chatting to each other. In some ways it was just like any other youth group – but obviously there were some very specific challenges to face:

  • Communication
  • Whilst they are all lovely, friendly people and happy to talk, most also have difficulty articulating what they want to say, or difficulty speaking clearly. In time it is possible to tune into each individual and understand what they were saying, but not before frustration on both sides.
  • Attention
  • Each of the group members requires very specific attention. Some require prolonged one-to-one attention, others like to check-in with you frequently. I found it difficult to meet everyone’s needs throughout the evening – whilst giving attention to one member, another two would try to strike up a conversation with me.
  • Affection
  • Most of the group members are incredibly affectionate: to each other, and to the leaders. If there is even a minor disagreement between them, there will be hugs and kisses, and sometimes tears as they make up. When walking around the hall or sitting chatting, it isn’t unusual for someone to hold your hand, put their arm around you, or hold onto your arm. It is completely innocent, and comes naturally to them, but my Child Protection instincts kick-in and I feel uncomfortable.
  • Sexual inquisitiveness
  • The majority are at the age where hormones are raging, and apparently it isn’t unusual for two of them to disapear to the toilets together. It’s important to have eyes in the back of your head and be aware at all times of who is in the room (or more importantly, who isn’t and why).

During the evening one of the girls was upset and it was difficult to understand the problem or to offer her any comfort. We eventually discovered that she had a stomach ache, and so she called home for someone to collect her. Unfortunately they didn’t arrive for about 30 minutes, during which time we had lots of tears and the loudest screaming I’ve ever heard. It was difficult to comfort her, and upsetting to see her in such pain and be unable to help.

Towards the end of the evening one of the boys withdrew from the group and looked upset. I had tried to talk to him but he wasn’t very forthcoming. Eventually he let on that he was upset because he was thinking about his uncle. He said that he had died and it makes him sad because he misses him. I asked him if the memories of his uncle were sad, and the biggest smile took over his face, and he said that they were all happy. We sat talking for a while and he shared stories about their holidays together, Christmas presents, birthday celebrations and the games they used to play. Then we had a quick discussion about life and death and why people die. Although it wasn’t always easy to understand him, we had a good chat, and he seemed to be ok by the end of the evening.

At the moment I’m studying Adolescent Development for the Engage Course, and it struck me during the evening that inspite of their difficulties/handicaps, these young people are all going through more or less the same adolescent process that all young people experience. It may be earlier/later/longer/shorter than usual because of their circumstances, but their bodies are developing in the same ways and their hormones are still rampaging in most cases. They are experiencing the same things, but I guess the challenges are even bigger as they are less able to cope with the changes than most.

By the end of the evening I was sad to see them go. Although the evening was packed with new challenges (not least remembering everyone’s name) I thoroughly enjoyed it. They are a pleasure to be with and I found the whole evening very rewarding.

Last week was “film night” and I was present at the start and end of the evening to set-up and pack away “the technology”. Even though I was only present for about an hour, it was great to be there, and I enjoyed seeing them again. I almost decided to stay for the whole evening (but the lure of badminton was too great). Now I can’t wait until my name appears on the rota again!