Over the last year, as people with learning disabilities and their families have been faced with unprecedented challenges, our friendship and dating service Luv2meetU set about converting its calendar of events into a virtual programme. Here, a parent of one of the service’s new members shares her experience of how Luv2meetU has helped her daughter build her confidence and even find love…
Our daughter Maddie is 23 years of age and autistic. We first looked into getting some more support for Maddie when her very first boyfriend ended the relationship in February after nine months.
Maddie felt isolated and lonely as we were all at work or college during the day. Some days I might get a dozen phone calls about little things that she was worrying about. We had set her up in a Doggy Daycare business from our home so that she could keep busy and have some interaction with owners and enjoy being with the dogs. Also, she would get exercise and we know the benefits of getting out of the house in terms of both physical and mental wellbeing. In terms of Maddie’s self-esteem, being able to say she has her own business is priceless to her. To go through the educational system always needing extra help, often failing and having to be resilient takes its toll. The business changed all that.
Then it became apparent that she needed something else to fill her days and that she could work around dog bookings. To that end I supported her with an application to Asda. The manager of the store was so impressed with Maddie that he wanted her on the tills as he said she would be amazing with the customers.
Maddie is not what people typically associate with autistic people. She is kind, warm, chatty and bubbly on the surface. However, in deeper conversation she can put in random comments. She knows what she means but others don’t!
Maddie’s difficulty with communication means that making long-lasting friendships can be really hard. Fitting in with her peers was even harder at school and she only had two close friends (who she is still in contact with), both of whom are on the spectrum. Many times, she would say to me, “it’s like I am invisible”. This related to her time at school where she’d try to join a friendship group but would be ignored. It was heartbreaking because if they got to know Maddie and could see past her quirks and ‘randomness’ they’d find a sweet girl who is actually very funny when you get to know her!
It was devastating when lockdown happened. During the first lockdown we were shielding my Dad who is extremely clinically vulnerable, so we decided Maddie should not work at Asda at that time, which clearly made her more isolated.
Having just broken up with her boyfriend we researched online dating at her request, but I was clear that it had to be safe. We happened upon Hft by chance. What an absolute godsend Luv2meetu has been.
Right from the start Maddie absolutely took to the activities and sessions that were run. She had been highly anxious and physically, literally screwed up tight in her body. She was constantly repeating things, “Mum I will get a boyfriend one day? Mum I will be able to have a family and a normal life? Mum I will be able to go out after lockdown?” She was displaying signs of repetitive and compulsive behaviour and thoughts.
It was heartbreaking and endlessly wearing on me and my family to keep repeating the same reassurances. There has been much talk in lockdown and beyond about the effect that social isolation has on mental health. I can testify that for people with a disability this is hugely damaging and extremely profound. None of us want to have our wings clipped socially but for people with communication difficulties or physical disabilities, things that were difficult to do before lockdown, have now become impossible. The opportunity to practise social skills in everyday life has been removed. The opportunity for others to praise and be warm to people with a disability has been removed. The kindness of a little chat and a brew has gone. Most devastating perhaps is the loss of routine and familiarity.
That’s why what Luv2meetu does is so vitally important. When Maddie does a quiz and gets a little prize through the post with a smiley face drawn on the back of the envelope how does she feel? She feels excited, elated, valued and loved. I would urge anyone who knows a person with a disability to access your service. We cannot put a price on human connection such as this. Spreading a little joy and giving people a sense of worth and belonging in their community cannot be underestimated in these times, where people are suffering from heightened and crippling anxiety and fear.
It’s been genuinely lovely to see Maddie excited and dressing up for a virtual Halloween party, for coffee meets and most of all she has had fun. Luv2meetU is getting it right because she wants to do her calls and sessions. She loves the fact that she is meeting people virtually from all over the country.
The other amazing thing is that she has met her boyfriend through the dating service. I have had to drive her to meetings and have spent many an hour sitting in the car whilst they socially distanced walked round the park! They are now officially an item! She now feels she has a future.
Maddie greatly benefitted from the relationships and sexual health sessions too and has had some sage advice on managing expectations from the other person in terms of how often you text or call. It’s been managed so professionally and I am truly thankful. The best thing is that you are reinforcing what we are saying as parents and that helps us enormously. If at times Maddie won’t listen to us as parents (and this does happen) we know we have the support of her key workers who are on the other end of the phone. This has helped take some of the pressure from us as we try to work full-time through lockdown and we are very grateful.
Thank you to all the marvellous creative and warm staff at Hft. Please know that what you are doing doesn’t just help the person you work with but also the families who live with the difficulties and stress that can go alongside living with a person that’s really struggling.
Visit our Luv2meetU page to find out more about friendship and dating opportunities for people with learning disabilities