NEW YORK — Zachary Lewis is looking for a date with a “positive attitude.” Josh Wolf would like to spend time with someone “polite and friendly.” Zaheer Malik wants a girlfriend who is “not too serious and not too silly, but in between.”
All three are learning about dating and relationships as part of “You and I,” a program for young adults who are retarded or autistic or have other mental disabilities.
On Monday night, the participants planned to put their new skills to the test by cooking Italian food, dancing the cha-cha and maybe flirting a little at a pre-Valentine’s Day party.
At “You and I” events, the participants — the guys outnumber the women 16 to 3 — learn “social-sexual skills,” with specifics on body language, grooming and conversation starters. There are also sections on feelings, body awareness and sex education.
The program’s coordinator, Bobra Fyne, says it can be tough for parents to realize that their children are adults who are ready for relationships.
Jeanette Reyes says her 20-year-old autistic son, Anthony Hasan, “loves girls dearly” but doesn’t know how to connect with them. She decided it would be better for him to learn about dating from people she trusted.
“I didn’t know how it would be, but I knew I couldn’t be afraid anymore,” she says.
Each session ends with a dance hour.
Wolf’s mother, Roberta Wolf, says the dancing is a “big plus” for her 28-year-old son, who works in the mailroom at Goldman Sachs. “He loves to dance, and any opportunity for a dance party is the biggest draw for him,” she says.
Malik’s mother got tears in her eyes when she saw her 29-year-old son dancing for the first time.
“You and I” is aimed at twenty-somethings who live with their parents in New York City and “are falling through the cracks. ... There’s just no social outlet for them at all,” says Fyne, who started her first group in 1999.
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In an exercise last week, group members drew hearts. Outside the hearts, they completed the sentence “I want somebody who looks like ...” Inside the hearts, they completed the sentence “I want somebody who treats me ...”
“The really juicy stuff is inside the heart,” Fyne says. One writer wanted “somebody who isn’t afraid of me because I have a disability.”
Members also practice phone conversations and have workshops on how to say no and how to get out of difficult situations. A holiday session was about gift-giving on a budget.
Lewis, 22, says the grooming workshop was one of his favorites. “They said you should have a smile on your face,” he says.
“You and I” is run by the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities Network, which serves more than 20,000 people. The free program is funded by a state grant.
YAI President Philip Levy says the program speaks to a theory of Sigmund Freud: that a healthy person is a someone with the ability to work and love.
“People need to feel that they belong, that they’re a part of a community,” Levy says. “That they’re part of a relationship or relationships, and all of that contributes to a sense of self-esteem, to a sense of pride, to a sense of well-being.”
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