Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Mentally Challenged Brother Wants a Girlfriend”

I’m writing regarding my 21-year-old brother, “Jason.”

Jason is a big-hearted person. He is creative, has a decent sense of humor, has good taste in music, and loves to cook. He’s also mildly mentally challenged. He is generally independent, though. He can manage his own money wisely, care for himself, cook his own meals, and care for our younger brother and their cats when needed. In fact, save for the fact that when he talks he has trouble getting his words out, most people can’t even tell that he’s any different. That, of course, isn’t why I’m writing. I’m writing because he wants a girlfriend. Bad.

He was seeing a girl a few years ago. I lived out of state at the time, so I never met her, but I heard from family members who did know her that she was slightly more — I’m not sure how to phrase this — severe in her disability. I don’t know if it was her or — more likely — her family who nipped it quickly, but he was banned from seeing her again. He was very broken up about it.

He is online a lot and he discovered a site called Omegle. If you’re unaware of Omegle, it is a one-on-one chat site where it is literally you and a “stranger.” He frequented the site a lot until I caught him passing out his phone number. I should note that, sadly, my parents were never the most attentive and didn’t ever give him — or me for that matter — many of the general safety talks that most parents have when it comes to the internet. So I explained to him in depth the dangers of looking to Omegle for a girlfriend.

There’s another social site that he frequents often. I’m on the site as well. The other night I caught him once again trolling random girls to ask out. Girls he knows literally nothing about.

I’m at a loss really. This isn’t something I can go to my parents about. They shame him for having screen savers of scantily clad comic book characters or even having an interest in women. I do my best to explain things and he gets it, but he’s just so very desperate, which scares me more. I’ve got a close friend who is rather desperate and I see the scum bags she winds up with. (No, setting them up together is absolutely not an option, by the way.).

Should I help him sign up for a proper online dating site? He goes out on his own weekly and meets up with an anime club and plays strategic card games with some people. I have suggested that he starts getting to know a few of the girls there in a non-aggressive and non-creepy way. Is there anything else that can be advised? — Worried Sister>

First of all, it’s apparent how deeply you care for your brother and want him to be happy and live a fulfilling and satisfying life. And I can certainly appreciate that, given his mild mental challenges, you want to protect him from the world. Unfortunately, part of living a full life means opening yourself up to a potential broken heart, embarrassment, and even worse, physical danger. If it’s the latter you’re most worried about, I’d say you need to articulate exactly what sorts of dangers you’re worried your brother might face. Is it robbery? Kidnapping? Rape? And what can your brother actively do, save from shutting himself indoors and never venturing online or out into the world, to protect himself from these crimes?

It may sound tedious, but making a list of each worry, followed by a list of preventative actions your brother can take — and that you can help him take — may go a long way in helping both of you feel more secure. Some suggestions: encourage him to meet people offline doing activities he enjoys; steer him to websites that allow him to see photos and profiles of people before interacting with them; look for online dating sites for people with disabilities; help him craft a dating profile that adequately conveys his challenges; instruct him not to give out his physical address to anyone he hasn’t met in person yet; tell him not to give out phone numbers to anyone he hasn’t exchanged at least several emails with—and to always meet dates at a public place, to tell others whom he’ll be meeting as well as when and where, to refrain from giving his last name to anyone he hasn’t yet met in person, and to take a self-defense course. Of course, none of these tips are sure-fire safety measures, but they can definitely add a level of security that it sounds like your brother is currently lacking.

If it’s a broken heart you’re worried about, there’s less you can do to protect him from that. Mental challenges or no, heartache is something that everyone who dares to “put himself or herself out there” faces all the time. You could share with him some of your own experiences with rejection or broken hearts so he better understands that heartache is a risk everyone faces and, if it’s something he has to experience, it won’t be because he’s “different”; it will actually be because he’s not so different.

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com and be sure to follow me on Twitter and ‘like’ me on Facebook.

36 comments… add one
  • Shell

    Shell May 8, 2012, 3:09 pm

    I volunteer for a monthly social/dinner event for adults with special needs. It’s a great opportunity for individuals to get out, meet others, and participate in activities that they may have not otherwise. A few weeks ago we did a poetry workshop. I’ve watched several happy couples meet this way – maybe there is this type of organization in your city?

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    • avatar

      JJ September 12, 2012, 12:17 am

      Hi—where is this located, this group? Im near Houston, and my older brother really needs to socialize more! His disability is mild…thanks!

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  • CatsMeow

    CatsMeow May 8, 2012, 3:18 pm

    Sorry if I’m being naive, but has anyone had “The Sex Talk” with him? You say he’s very high functioning and independent, but at the same time say that your parents shame him for having an interest in girls. I also know that some people seem to expect adults with mental disabilities to be completely asexual when usually they’re anything but.

    But if he doesn’t already, he needs to know the ins & outs of sex (pun intended), as well as the consequences and prevention of unwanted consequences. He also needs to learn about consent and what’s appropriate/inappropriate within intimate relationships if he doesn’t already. Again, I’m not trying to underestimate him, I’m just not sure by your letter how much he knows or understands. I guess I’d suggest that if you’re comfortable, to start having these types of talks with him, or find someone else who can.

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    • JK

      JK May 8, 2012, 3:24 pm

      It really is a complicated subject. A friend has a mentally disabled sister, that has a “BF”, they´re discussing whether to have a more in depth sex talk, but not sure if they´ll be waking up urges by doing so (up to now the sister hasn´t expressed any interest in sex). Granted LW´s brother´s disability sounds more mild than this girl´s.

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    • caitie_didnt

      caitie_didnt May 8, 2012, 4:17 pm

      I want to like this infinitely…..so many important things!

      We (the universal we) tend to view people with intellectual disabilities especially as asexual beings because of their intellectual abilities. But they are really not- they are adults, with adult bodies, adult hormones and all the adult urges that the average person has. So, yes, LW: if nobody has given your brother the “sex talk” yet, it needs to happen right.now.

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  • avatar

    honeybeenicki May 8, 2012, 3:29 pm

    I just did a quick google search for dating website for people with disabilities and quite a few came up. That may be a good options, but encouraging your brother to meet people at the clubs he goes to (and therefore meet people with similar interests/hobbies) is also an excellent idea. I also wonder about the question posed by CatsMeow about the “sex talk” and whether or not he is informed and knows how to protect himself.

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    • FireStar

      FireStar May 8, 2012, 4:14 pm

      I think this is the best idea. To have him target a dating site where they may have protocols in place to protect their vulnerable clientel. And the group social meet ups – that sounds like a great way of socializing and meeting people. Girls he will feel comfortable with and that will feel comfortable with him. Win-win!

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  • katie

    katie May 8, 2012, 3:33 pm

    this reminds me of the mother in the UK who was trying to have her daughters tubes tied by a court order.. the daughter was also mentally challenged and didnt understand what sex did but did it because it felt good, but liked the thought of being a “mommy” even though technically the grandmother was actually putting in the hard mothering work. the poor daughter had like 3 babies or something and the grandmother didnt have the time and resources to take care of the babies AND the daughter… is was a really sad situation, and more about personal rights then anything, but… i agree with cats that you will have to be able to explain to him what is going on with dating if he doesnt already understand that. i would hate for your family to find themselves in a situation any close to that family in the UK.

    and im sure that there are some groups or organizations that he could be able to meet people like him, maybe he could find a girlfriend there? and there are dating sites geared toward anyone and everyone nowadays- maybe there is one for him?

    and then, i think you should try to teach him how to be a “gentleman”… you know, how to respect women, hold doors open for them, ect, so he could ultimately make a good impression on someone and not a creepy/stalker impression you think that is capable of now.

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    • avatar

      Micah May 8, 2012, 3:51 pm

      I thought of the same story, katie. There’s a tendency to treat people with disabilities as though they need to be protected or sheltered, when really they need to be taught the realities of the world just like anyone else. It might be difficult or unpleasant, as it is always unpleasant explaining that the world isn’t really sunshine and butterflies, but it still needs to be done, especially when the person is 21 years old.

      Like others have said, I’m not sure what kind of discussions have been had with your brother regarding relationships or intimacy, but those discussions need to take place, as do ones about the dangers of giving out personal information on the internet. Help your brother find safer ways to meet girls. I saw some really good suggestions in the comments here.

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  • Leroy

    Leroy May 8, 2012, 3:49 pm

    I imagine that it’s especially tricky for someone w/ mild impairments. You’re sort of between two worlds.

    You might consider setting him up w/ a number through Skype, or a similar service, just so that he’s not using his direct number.

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  • Fabelle

    Fabelle May 8, 2012, 3:58 pm

    I sort of read this a bit differently? It’s clear the LW wants to protect her brother, of course, but I think she’s also concerned about the (unintentional) threat he may pose to unsuspecting women. Is anyone else getting that vibe?

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    • CatsMeow

      CatsMeow May 8, 2012, 4:02 pm

      I did. I mentioned consent in my comment because I think that’s really important for him to understand.

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    • avatar

      camille905 May 8, 2012, 4:06 pm

      I got the impression that he was more socially awkward (a combination of his mental ability and inexperience with women) and sometimes guys who are socially awkward and inexperienced can come off a little creepy because they haven’t been taught what behavior is appropriate and what is not- like giving his phone number to random people.

      I really like the suggestions above about giving him the sex talk but also helping him to be a gentleman and giving him direction about how to interact with women.

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    • caitie_didnt

      caitie_didnt May 8, 2012, 4:48 pm

      It’s certainly possible….but I think at 21 and able to live mostly independently he is probably well aware of appropriate physical boundaries with respect to touching.

      I used to work extensively with kids and teenagers with all types of disabilities. In the +100 kids I worked with/supervised I think there was only ever one teenage boy who did grope me and another female staff member- and you better believe that we put a stop to that QUICKLY. So anecdotally, I would say that inappropriate touching isn’t terribly common, even in people with severe disability, who can certainly still understand appropriate boundaries!

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      • CatsMeow

        CatsMeow May 8, 2012, 5:12 pm

        That’s good to hear! I really didn’t want to underestimate his abilities. I don’t have a lot of experience with this particular population. I just know that for me, doing sex ed, I’ve had some folks in that line of work ask us to do classes for them because they find that their clients are way more sexual than some people would like to believe! Not so much with inappropriate touching, but being sexual with each other and not fully understanding the consequences. And if he’s high functioning and his girlfriend is not, then there could potentially be a grey area as far as whether or not she could legally consent.

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      • avatar

        Micah May 8, 2012, 5:25 pm

        Such a good point about consent. I would have given you a thumbs up, but that wasn’t specific enough.

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    • Leroy

      Leroy May 8, 2012, 5:30 pm

      I’d read her comments to indicate more of a concern that he would come off the wrong way due to his eagerness and inexperience, not that he was likely to hurt anyone.

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      • CatsMeow

        CatsMeow May 8, 2012, 5:37 pm

        Yeah, I don’t think he’s a “predator” in any way, and I hope my consent comment didn’t insinuate that.

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        camille905 May 8, 2012, 5:57 pm

        Your consent comment didn’t insinuate it at all! You made a very good point.

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      • CatsMeow

        CatsMeow May 8, 2012, 5:59 pm

        Whew! OK. I didn’t want my comment to be misconstrued.

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    • avatar

      MsMisery May 9, 2012, 1:04 pm

      @Fabelle

      This has been true of many of the guys I’ve dated. They should ALL have been so lucky to have had a sister to tell them “Hey bro, don’t be creepy or weird, mkay?”

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  • Budj

    Budj May 8, 2012, 4:29 pm

    Sounds to me like he is using the internet because it’s easier and more anonymous…

    A lot of good comments up above, but I would add that maybe you could look at submitting personal ads for him…and agree to supervised meet ups with other mentally disabled people that are in the in-between zone your brother seems to be in. You would be able to help him identify a suitable partner that isn’t more disabled than him and also kind of guide him through the process of “being a gentleman” / the courting phase / how to properly carry on a relationship. Grooming that relationship between you two also might help him open up to you if he doesn’t know what to do at some point in the future.

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    • avatar

      Addie Pray May 8, 2012, 6:07 pm

      1. Whoa, nice new picture. Great, now everyone is gonna try to flirt with my real-life, not-at-all-made-up internet boyfriend that I stole from RR while I was also advocating for an RR-Budj romance.

      2. Your picture looks like… mine. Basically, you’re a handsome version of Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, circa 1973. Pretend I’m saying this out loud with a sexy, sultry voice, otherwise there is nothing flirtatious about what I just said.

      3. I just had a 3.5+ hour interview and am exhausted from having to be energetic and enthusiastic for so long! Like, I really want to scowl and be bitter for the rest of the evening. Otherwise I’m afraid my face is going to stay frozen in this happy/upbeat way – and it’s exhausting.

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      • katie

        katie May 8, 2012, 6:52 pm

        How did the interview go? What job was it for?

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      • Budj

        Budj May 9, 2012, 12:59 pm

        Thanks! haha.

        The biggest hate I have for interviews is my eyes get really dry from making eye contact for so long with so many people. haha. 8 hours of looking people dead in the eye (give or take some minutes).

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  • avatar

    BusyReader May 8, 2012, 4:44 pm

    LW: Contact your local psychiatric hospital, or the psychiatry department at a university hospital or other big medical center. They’ll be able to give you pointers to resources in your area and other things that you might consider. Depending on what’s available in your area you might find a sex therapist that works with the mentally disabled, or a psychiatrist who has experience with this. You’re not alone in facing this kind of situation and there are people who can help.

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  • avatar

    summerkitten26 May 8, 2012, 5:42 pm

    i have nothing else to add to Wendy’s and others’ advice, but LW, I want to say that it’s very obvious you care about your brother a lot. It seems as if you’ve had to be mother and father to him and yourself. This situation can’t be easy and probably very stressful. Please make sure that you have someone you can talk and vent to as well. Best of luck.

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  • avatar

    Sue Jones May 8, 2012, 6:04 pm

    This may be premature, but he should also have the “Contraception Talk”. I know that sterilizing people with disabilities is not PC anymore, but think of the repercussions if he should get another woman with disabilities pregnant…chances are that their child will also be disabled and maybe have a worse disability since you are mixing not 1 but 2 disabilities together in the genetic line, assuming that his disability is transmitted genetically and not something like CP which is not… and who would parent their child or would they put it up for adoption? I think of this with my bipolar stepson, should he get with another bipolar or mentally ill girl and get her pregnant and they don’t want an abortion etc. I wish that we could ensure that he never has children since his illness really seems to be passed down genetically….but once they are legal adults…. alas.

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  • avatar

    Desiree May 8, 2012, 6:19 pm

    LW, I think it is awesome that you are so supportive of your brother. Everyone has made great points above. Here is my experience: I have a little sister with autism, and she recently started dating a boy who also has high-functioning autism (they are both teens still). I am very protective of my sister since she has been bullied so much, but her new romance has been such a positive influence in her life. She and her boyfriend “get” one another, which is particularly important for them since they have often been misunderstood by their classmates. Your brother certainly does not have to date a woman with a similar disability level, but it could work out really well for him.

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  • AKchic_

    AKchic_ May 8, 2012, 5:46 pm

    This somewhat reminds me of my former BIL. Nobody wanted to admit that he was a high-functioning “challenged” individual. They just wanted to pass him off as a regular guy who wasn’t “book smart”. Well, when he got arrested at 19 for sleeping with a 13 year old foster girl in a store parking lot in broad daylight – things got difficult. He finally started getting all the tests that the schools insisted he get as a child (court required it). Oppositional defiance disorder, mildy retarded, ADHD, etc, and now my former MIL blames herself for everything. And still babies him.

    If your brother is legit in his mental issues, then more than likely, he is part of a “community” where there are others like him. I don’t mean to categorize him, but am I right in suggesting that you would feel more comfortable with him dating someone who was dealing with the same challenges as he was, rather than a “normal” person, who might not quite understand his issues, and who might very well take advantage of him?

    You need to find a support group. For your parents if they will go, for your brother, and maybe for yourself. Your brother needs to understand that giving out a landline phone number is extremely dangerous (it can be traced back to the home address and you can be burgled!). Your parents need to realize that having a disability doesn’t mean you’re a eunuch and celebate for life. You need some support in general.

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  • avatar

    Painted_lady May 8, 2012, 6:52 pm

    I grew up with friends of the family who have a son, now an adult, who sounds like he’s probably only slightly less functional than your brother. He was also shamed quite a bit about his sexuality from the onset of puberty – his parents are well-meaning but conservative, and add that to having a special needs son and the overall discomfort of having to deal with a kid who seems way younger and yet has all the hormonal impulses of a tween…it just wasn’t a happy time for any of them. Rather than learning appropriate boundaries and how to act on impulses in a positive way, he just got better at being sneaky, and yeah, it made him a little creepy – obviously it wasn’t malicious, but I didn’t get that at eleven, all I knew was if I spent the night with his sister there was a good chance he’d walk in on me changing. I don’t think his parents had a whole lot of guidance with it, and I think whoever recommended a support group is right on the money, at the very least for the two of you if your parents aren’t game. The guy I grew up with eventually got into a lightly supervised group home – they all work and pay rent and do their own thing, and someone comes by once a day or so to make sure they’re okay – and that ended up being the best decision for him and his family. I know he dates, mostly women also supervised by this organization, and they sound really great at making sure things are safe and smart without making these adults feel badly for acting like…well, adults! I’m sure there’s an organization similar to this that would include him without his having to move anywhere. Try adult social services – social workers are amazing resources for stuff like this.

    He’s lucky to have a supportive sibling. You obviously care a lot about his well-being from a pragmatic standpoint, and that is unbelievably cool. Sisters are also great people to learn about women from – you sound like you guys are close enough you could take him out and supervise while he practices talking up women. At any rate, I think you’re absolutely being a gold-star sister, and he’s in great hands on this front.

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  • fast eddie

    fast eddie May 8, 2012, 5:54 pm

    I feel all warm and tingly for associating with this DW community that is supportive of this issue. Everybody, challenged or not, deserves the opportunity to be loved. The complications are real when challenged people become involved in romantic situations, as if it’s easy for anyone. WS is a wonderful human being to care about her brother and her willingness to help him.
    5 GOLD STARS!

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  • avatar

    BettyBoop May 8, 2012, 7:17 pm

    I’d start out by checking out your local nonprofit sexual health clinics. There’s usually sex ed classes for adults with disabilities that help explain the details of dating and sexual health in respectful but appropriately graphic ways to ensure clients are capable of navigating the trickiness of dating with disabilities. Start googling away too! In my area we have a whole bunch of events geared towards adults with varying levels of disabilities to get together, have a good time and mingle that leads to lots of relationships. If your brother can get involved in these types of groups, he’s going to have a great chance of meeting someone he clicks with in a safe environment.

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  • avatar

    Sunshine Brite May 9, 2012, 12:40 pm

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    LW, I work in a group home so this is coming from a slightly different perspective than someone who would work with people with developmental disabilities in the community or has family dealing with that situation. I also graduate in a couple months from a masters program in social work. Follow Wendy’s advice, it’s great as always 🙂

    I work with people who are much lower functioning than it sounds like your brother is and some of them have girlfriends or boyfriends at different times. And it works because there are parameters in place to monitor some of what goes on. You didn’t mention a guardian so you are limited in what you can do when he is his own guardian. Teach him the skills if you can, it sounds like there is some distance involved so if a friend or someone else close could help him practice the skills to learn consent, boyfriend behavior, etc. that would be ideal.

    Also, monitor those risks you’re finding. How does he handle other risks? It sounds like he’s very independent and has a lot of skills, interests, and generally is a great guy. However, if he does end up accidentally contacting a woman to the point where she becomes fearful he could get in legal trouble. If someone doesn’t realize that he could be considered a vulnerable adult in some jurisdictions could get in legal trouble for beginning a romantic relationship with him even if they didn’t have sex. It’s unclear to me if it would be considered a VA situation give his independence and lack of a guardian, but if a violation was determined by adult protection that person would have many legal difficulties. Protection doesn’t mean trying to stifle his desires, but helping him express them in a safe way.

    Try and help him find someone at a similar disability level, someone who is their own guardian if he is his. If he’s not his own guardian, his guardian can implement a plan about his romantic relationships and if his guardians are your parents, he could end up being stopped if they implement plans against romantic expressions by him. Do not sign him up for a traditional dating site because that will most likely set him up for failure that could include those scary realities of robbery, rape, murder, etc.

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  • avatar

    6napkinburger May 9, 2012, 12:56 pm

    (and clearly, the nuance everyone else has brought).

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  • avatar

    lyn August 11, 2014, 11:15 am

    I have a 22 year old daughter that needs to get socialized more. She has many labels including mildly retarded, she wants friends and a boyfriend and in general a life. She loves anime. Sounds like she has a lot in common with worried sisters brother except for the friends. She tries, but it’s hard for people to except her for who she is unless they are younger. We live in tn. And I need help please email me with anything that might help. Thanks

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