Connecting with Teens with Special Needs

Most of what is said about connecting with teens assumes the teen you’re connecting with is typical (but really, what does typical even mean?). The fact is there are millions of teens across the U.S. who face some challenge or another. As the father of one of these teens, I thought it might be useful to talk a bit about how my son experiences the world, what he wants from life and how the people, institutions and businesses around him can help.

My son, who is 18 now, has struggled with developmental delays virtually his entire life. His motor skills and executive functioning aren’t great and when he was a kid his ability to regulate his behavior wasn’t good either. He has come a long way and I’m proud of him and I like him and I love him. It can be hard watching as he tries to make sense of the world and his place in it.

We’re fortunate to live in a great town, where the school district has been willing to do everything they can to provide support. That has meant my son has been “out of district” since he was in kindergarten. The schools he has attended have been fantastic but each of them has been in a different community. When he was young that wasn’t such an issue; but as he grew older that became a problem. Without friends in his hometown he felt isolated and lonely.

So one of the things to think about when thinking about teens with special needs is the fact that they may have fewer connections to the community than other kids. It might not be about going to school in another town. Sometimes the nature of a kid’s disabilities can make it hard for them to fit in or be accepted. Finding ways to bring kids into the community is really important but really tricky.

For my son, participating in “special needs” groups or activities doesn’t cut it. He’s a smart and self-aware guy and sometimes he doesn’t want to be segregated. It’s hard though, it’s obvious he has challenges and that can make some typical teens uncomfortable. It can be heart-wrenching to watch your kid try to initiate a conversation with a peer in a store or movie theater, only to be ignored, rebuffed or laughed at.

The fact is, he has many of the same interests as any other teenage boy. He plays way too many video games, likes to go to the movies, struggles to figure out girls, has to deal with an annoying boss and objects to almost everything I say. He wants so badly just to be accepted.

There are signs of hope. Beginning in September he will be enrolled in a life-skills program in our town. For the first time since he was a toddler he’ll be going to school with kids from his community and he’s elated. A big part of this program is focused on being a part of the community. Using local transportation, shopping in local stores, going to a local gym and working for a local business.

It’s great that the school district and business community can work together to create opportunities for kids like my son. The jobs these businesses offer aren’t sheltered workshops but are ones that match requirements with capabilities. That is a degree of engaging a teen with special needs that is super meaningful. It brings them in rather than keeping them apart. For my son that’s incredibly powerful.

Even a seemingly small gesture – greeting someone warmly (but not unnaturally), welcoming them, asking for their input and opinion – can make a world of difference. When my son heard about the program here in town he was initially ambivalent but excited by the prospect. He was worried about leaving his current school and losing the connection to friends there. Once he met with the staff and learned more he was ready to make the move.

As the possibilities of being connected to his community have sunk in, his mood has been lifted. Here’s a note he sent about the opportunity:

 im feeling good i can see my future and i feel hope i haven’t felt hope for almost the entire year i can see the path but i don’t know my destonason  

It’s OK that he doesn’t know his destination. Who does? But it’s important that he can see a path forward, and that is something everyone should support.

Originally published at

WebInno X Preview

WebInno is turning 10. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment and Dave Beisel deserves a ton of thanks for creating not just an event that has grown and thrived over the past decade but a community that has done the same. The companies that have appeared at the event over the years are truly impressive. Dropbox, Reddit, RunKeeper, CustomMade, Localytics and Fiksu are just a few of the companies for which WebInno was a step on the path to success.

I’ve been attending for eight years or so and have only missed a handful of events in that time. The big 10th Anniversary WebInno is happening tomorrow and I sure won’t be missing it.

Here are the companies that will be on hand for tomorrow’s event:

Main Dishes

Crayon – Get awesome marketing ideas. Free. – Crayon bills itself as “the most comprehensive marketing design search engine on the web.” I can’t say how many other marketing design search engines are out there but I can say Crayon has a ton of stuff in it. When you fire up the site for the first time you’ll be asked to sign in or sign up. Once you log in you’ll be greeted by a vaguely Pinterestesque experience that allows you to search, save and share literally millions of design ideas. Pretty cool.

Cymbal – music discovery powered by friends, not algorithms – Music is a big part of my life. I listen to a ton of music and play fiddle and sing in Waiting for Neil. I’m lucky because I get exposed to new music all the time – but it’s no accident. Finding new music and sharing it with friends is something I love doing. Sadly, because I’m not an iOS user I can’t test out Cymbal and the site is pretty light on details. I’ll have to wait to hear what they have to say when they demo.

Trumpit – Real time photo sharing – From iOS only to Android only we have Trumpit, a messaging app based around sharing photos. I love taking and sharing photos but boy are there a lot of options. My phone has more camera and photo apps than you can shake a stick at. I’m constantly trying to winnow down what I have to a usable core. (At the moment, that is Google Camera and Photos – got to love the free unlimited storage.)

Trumpit does have a nice feature – the photos you share with friends appear on their lock screens. This means they are for sure going to see it. I signed up and got a test photo sent to my phone. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly pop up for me as I have another lock screen app installed.

Side Dishes

Spot – Spot seems pretty cool. If you have a parking spot – a real spot that you actually own – you can rent it out to people looking to park. If you need a spot you can search and pay for one with the Spot app. There have been other apps that provide a similar service but a few of them have made it possible for people to hold and rent out public spaces (kind of a no-no). These guys are doing it right and can hopefully ease the headaches of finding parking in congested neighborhoods. Good luck!

LucyBot – APIs should be easy – those are words you don’t usually think of in the same sentence. I know that there’s a big push for more people to learn to code – and that’s a good thing. How many of the mass of coder bootcamp participants are going to take the API plunge is another story. To the extent that people do, LucyBot does seem to make sense. The site includes a gallery of APIs (including, coincidentally, Random Users, which features a bunch of my 1000faces images) and a way for you to add your own API to the site.

One bone I have to pick with the site – and this is only because I unexpectedly found some of my own images made available through it – is the fact that it doesn’t preserve or present the copyright associated with the content. My images, for example, are offered under Creative Commons attribution/non-commercial/share alike. As LucyBot is set up someone using the Random User API would be unaware of this and could easily fall afoul of my pretty easy copyright requirements. Hopefully the team will address this concern.

opportunitySPACE –  – A new marketplace for under-valued land and buildings – this appears to be a neat little site for matching those with “real estate liabilities” with those looking for “undervalued real estate.” Much of the focus seems to be on helping governments offload land or properties. I tried to check it out but it turns out there were no properties in Boston (one of the geographies included on the site).

There were other properties available in other cities though, but I’ll be honest, I am totally not the market for this site. One of the properties listed is the space under the Route 95/Braga Bridge in Fall River. It’s an infra-space program. The fact that would have to find out what an infra-space program is probably means I’m not going to be doing one any time soon. If you do know what that means then the State of Massachusetts might have (the space under) a bridge to sell you. 

JustReachOut – Find journalists. Prefect your pitch. Reach out and get press. – Maybe it’s because I’m a PR person, but I don’t really get this site. When I want to find out which reporters have written about a topic I use this free tool – Google – that does a pretty nice job. JRO offers more than a way to find reporters though; it also provides a way to reach out to them from the site. That’s cool. I’d be curious to hear how effect this approach is.

Fastcloud –  – Build and Manage Enterprise Applications in the Cloud – this reminded me a little of LucyBot – but writ large. You can build apps wicked fast, work with team members easily and have what you build run on any device. It also integrates a ton of popular sources like Salesforce, GitHub, Amazon Web Services and more. Since I’m neither an enterprise nor a cloud developer it’s tough for me to judge what Fastcloud is all about but it seems cool.

Spatterit – Leave your mark. Not your profile. – Describing itself as a “virtual billboard” Spatter lets you post and comment on the things happening around you in the real world. I installed the app and had a look at the ways people were using it. I see that there was a 5K race in the Newton Highlands on 6/14, a Free Brady Pub Run on 5/24 and a lot of posts on Newton Educators. Personally, I could find little rhyme or reason to the posts and many were promoting things long in the past. The idea of locally-based content is a good one but I found the Spatter approach confusing and not particularly engaging.

Realtime Brackets – Update your bracket all tourney – I’ve never been a big March Madness guy but I know a ton of people who are. RTB promises to help follow the tournament by keeping the brackets live and updated in real time. OK. I guess that’s cool. 

Promposal — The Crazy Cost of Getting a Prom Date

Prom season is just winding down and across the country parents are still trying to lift their jaws off the floor due to the costs of this annual rite of spring. The good news is that costs have come down when compared with recent years but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still high. At a meeting earlier this month, the CEO of a company told me his daughter wanted $100 to have her makeup done for her junior prom!

One of the notable trends of this year’s prom season — and one that is attracting attention and dollars is the promposal — elaborate invitations to be someone’s prom date. The promposal isn’t exactly new; The Washington Post published a history of the promposal last year, which traces its roots to Dallas in 2001. This year, though, things have gone to a whole new level. Press coverage of the phenomenon has exploded, MTV produced “Promposal Mania” (a two-day “celebration of prom,” and the lengths kids are willing to go beggar belief. Here are just a few examples of notable promposals from this year’s prom season:

Creating these promposals (or being bailed out after the fact) doesn’t come cheap. According to Visa’s recently released 2015 Prom Survey, promposals consume more than 30% of the overall prom budget:

While kids and parents are spending more and more for promposals, the ways the idea is being discussed though traditional and social media is also notable. In looking at social media mentions of promposals between May 10 and 18, they are dwarfed by mentions of prom in general.

One of the things that makes this relative representation of promposal in social media interesting is the strong showing of Twitter, which accounted for more than 90% of the mentions.

These numbers paint a very different picture of teen social media use than the one provided in Pew’s recently released “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015.” According to that research, the percentage of teens reporting which social media channels they use looks like this:

  • Facebook — 71%
  • Instagram — 52%
  • Twitter — 33%
  • Tumblr — 14%

Overall coverage of promposal on the Web (excluding Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr) dwarfs the social discussion. Over the same nine-day period mentioned above, promposal appeared more than 6,000 times on the Web vs. fewer than 600 in all the social channels combined:

This is a very stark — and in some ways unexpected — difference. Given that teens are the ones participating in promposals, you might expect they would be driving the conversation. That isn’t the case. Most of the media coverage is focused on highlighting examples of outlandish, illegal or cute promposals.

That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of social media activity around promposals. There are two promposal-focused Twitter accounts: The Promposal, with almost 25,000 followers but posts that are few and far between and Promposals, with more than 250,000 followers and posts that aren’t all promposal focused (or safe for work). The #promposal2k15 hashtag also features a nice selection of social content around the concept.

While brands and retailers might want to see some of the promposal spending (Visa puts the average spend at $324), few are actively promoting themselves, their products or their services through social channels. In looking at the social media channels for more than 100 mall-based retailers (The Brea Mall in Brea, Calif. was used to provide a sample), only three — Brighton Collectables, Taco Bell and Things Remembered — featured mentions of promposal.

Given the amount being spent, the volume of press coverage and the reach of social, promposals seem like a natural fit for teen-focused brands. Few took advantage of the opportunity in 2015. Perhaps more will do so in 2016.

Originally published at