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How you can help teenagers make friends and enjoy life

CHRISTMAS can be a lonely time for people with learning disabilities.

COOL: Donna Harrigan, youth group leader, centre, with Enable Link members from left - Liam McCarthy, Stuart Harper, Andrew Petrie, David Petrie and Hassan Ali. Picture: Colin Mearns
COOL: Donna Harrigan, youth group leader, centre, with Enable Link members from left - Liam McCarthy, Stuart Harper, Andrew Petrie, David Petrie and Hassan Ali. Picture: Colin Mearns

With its emphasis on catching up with friends and family, most of us see it as a festive time for sharing, but one-third of people with learning disabilities say they sometimes feel lonely and only one-third are able to name at least one close friend.

While many have family to support them, almost three-quarters of people with learning disabilities do not have a partner. Parents or other family often double-up to provide personal care and sometimes people with complex disabilities can feel the only people they ever see are ­workers or carers.

Meanwhile, 82% of children with learning disabilities face some form of bullying.

That is why the response to 15-year-old Stuart Harper, a member of Enable Link, is so remarkable when he speaks about his learning and reading ­difficulties. Quick as a flash, his friends contradict him.

"He's improved a lot now," says Hassan Ali, 23. "Yes, he has ­definitely. Your reading has dramatically improved, I'm amazed by that," says 18-year-old Andrew Petrie.

All of the group - numbers are made up by David, Andrew's 16-year-old brother, and 18-year-old Liam McCarthy, are firm friends now. But all have struggled socially due to conditions including autism-spectrum disorders.

"I never used to go out much, I don't have friends outside this group really," Liam explains. "It is difficult for me, I've got language problems," then after a pause as if to test the water, he blurts out: "It's Asperger's."

Several of the boys recount tales of a school life featuring bullying and ostracism. And they explain how attending a large weekly Friendship Group run by Enable Scotland - the charity supported by this year's Herald Christmas Appeal - has changed their lives.

"I didn't have many friends at school," Andrew says, "but being with the group has given me confidence. When I started going to college I made more friends in 20 minutes than I had before in my life."

The boys are among a regular group of 16 or 17 attending the East Dunbartonsire club. But after bonding at the group, they have now formed strong friendships outside the regular meetings, forged through common interests such as computer gaming and Laser Quest. They even have their own joint ­Facebook page.

"I don't think anyone who joins the group doesn't get to know people. People who find it difficult, with social problems, can walk in here and get to know everyone," Andrew explains.

Enable Scotland workers and volunteers help co-ordinate the Bishopbriggs group and many others in different areas of Scotland which bring people together and help them to develop natural friendships through ball games, outdoor activities, fundraising events and just hanging out.

The charity's Friends Network in Perthshire brings people together through a range of social events and activities chosen by members, including bowling, discos, basketball, football, picnics, jewellery-making, speed-friending and more.

Parents and family carers also benefit from friendships, often through school but also through Enable Scotland Parents Together events and the network of 46 local branches, where parents and carers can meet other people in a similar situation to their own.

Enable Scotland believes people with learning disabilities have the right to enjoy friendships and different sorts of meaningful relationships, including having a boyfriend or girlfriend, getting married, and becoming parents. Many people with a learning disability are capable of raising children and becoming good parents, providing they receive the right help and advice, the charity says.

Enable Scotland marks its 60th anniversary year in 2014, and The Herald is appealing to readers for donations to help continue the life-changing efforts of the charity. Your support can help Enable develop the thriving branch network which allows friendship groups to flourish.

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