Is He Flirting With Me — or Just Reaching Out for Friendship?

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Reader’s Question

Over the last few months, I’ve been getting to know a special needs child from my school. I’m not sure of his age or his disability, mostly we just say hello when passing in the hallway, or ask how the other’s day is going.

However, recently, he tries to reach out and touch me when we meet. He also leaves me relentless messages on Facebook. I don’t know his intentions or what he’s trying to express. Is he flirting with me? If so, how do I respond to him? Or is he just lonely and reaching out for friendship?

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s hard to respond to you without knowing more about his disability and his abilities. Therefore, I’ll respond as if your friend were mildly retarded, meaning he has an IQ of 70 or below.

For those who are so intellectually challenged, we think about the age-appropriate achievement one can reasonably expect them to achieve. We think that, on average, a person with mild MR can achieve the equivalent of fifth grade education, and the level of maturity and independent functioning of an eleven year old with normative intelligence. To the extent this is true for your friend, you could think about him as no older than 11. Then try to interpret his behavior and how to respond.

It is easy to believe that a show of friendship could result in his having a bit of a crush on you. If it is just a platonic friendship, then you can consider that he’s excited to have his social isolation broken and expresses himself in an immature way. In responding to him, think about the personal boundaries that you need from him, and also the freedom in relating that you will afford him. Once clear, then communicate that to him in simple, direct terms. It is very good to be friends, to say hello to each other in the hallway, even leave occasional messages on Facebook. It is not ok to write more than one message a day, more than 500 words per message, or write overly emotional content for publication. You are a friend, no more no less. Within that framework, how much freedom can you enjoy together?

This can be a wonderful learning experience for him. He can establish a mature relationship with you within limits and succeed socially where he may not have before. Do try to avoid being overly harsh or critical. Do try to speak directly and concretely, avoiding too many abstractions. After he has become familiar with you and the rules of engagement, then you can both settle into a friendship that may last a long time.

If you do find that, except for you, your friend is isolated, or if he is socially immature, then you may want to find a way for him to get involved in a group function. Encouraging him to be more social helps him grow from success to success. It also helps you by removing yourself from the position of being his ‘one and only’. Give it a try, and good luck.

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