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Mike’s Crush

Mike's Crush Collage

Program Length: 8 Lessons
Age Group: 13-18
Author: Nancy Nowell, MPA, MEd, CSE

Understanding High School Relationships for Youth with Autism and Learning Disabilities

Teens with autism and intellectual disabilities want friends and romantic connections, just like their peers – but face extra challenges in developing these relationships. Many lack basic social skills and have difficulty understanding social signals. This often leaves them lonely and isolated, making them at higher risk for crossing social and legal boundaries or being victims of abuse.

The innovative Mike’s Crush curriculum/video program teaches these young people how to establish healthy and safe relationships with their peers, including friendship and romantic relationships.


Mike’s Crush contains 8 lessons that cover many aspects of middle and high school social interactions. For example, students learn how to identify positive and negative body language, recognize when peers do (or don’t) want to be friends, and understand social and legal lines that must not be crossed.

Mike’s Crush uses research-based teaching strategies that are recommended for students on the autism spectrum. These include visual learning techniques such as video modeling and video self-modeling along with role-playing and other interactive methods.

A key instructional tool is the engaging two part video story (Mike’s Crush) that demonstrates all the pieces of a social interaction puzzle, including communication, body language, friendship, hygiene, and personal space. Through exaggerated examples, the video illustrates how a teen can incorrectly “read” a social situation, as well as how to respond appropriately.

Used together, the lessons, videos and activities help students learn and practice new social behaviors in the safe environment of a classroom.

The Mike’s Crush curriculum is versatile and easy to teach. It is written for use by a variety of school personnel as well as by professionals and group leaders in the community. Instructors can use the lessons as written, adapt them, or use the videos alone to problem-solve relationship issues that occur in their classrooms.

The curriculum includes everything needed to teach the course:

  • 114 page Manual with detailed teaching instructions
  • Lesson plans, assessments, reproducible handouts, quizzes and other teaching tools.
  • 2 video stories and 5 supplementary video segments.

The Mike’s Crush curriculum was developed as a direct result of needs expressed by middle and high school students with disabilities, their parents, and teachers.

The goal of the program is to provide these students with the knowledge and skills needed for healthy relationships with their peers, including romantic relationships.

Why this is important

All people who want romantic relationships make mistakes, but ideally, they learn from their mistakes. For many teens who have autism or other disabilities, this learning is hindered because they cannot read the social signals that their peers are sending. If their peers do not want friendship or romance, this often leads to confusion, misunderstandings or more serious consequences.

We know that it is safer for high school students to make these mistakes when there are supports available at home and in school. Young adults who have fewer safety nets can lose their jobs, and be charged as adults in the criminal justice system when they make the same mistakes.

Since extreme forms of sexual harassment and stalking are illegal, all students with disabilities need to understand relational boundaries, laws, and consequences. Other types of sexual harassment and stalking are not against the law, but have real consequences in a high school setting.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also know that people with disabilities are victims of sexual abuse and abuse at a far higher rate than their non-disabled peers.

Teaching methods

After completing the Mike’s Crush curriculum (video and lessons), students will be able to:

  1. Identify the right and wrong social skills presented in the two videos.
  2. Define vocabulary words included in each lesson.
  3. Describe why appearance and hygiene matter in school.
  4. Identify and define different types of relationships.
  5. Demonstrate how to start a conversation and get to know someone.
  6. Identify and describe how a peer looks when he or she is not interested in talking to you or getting to know you.
  7. Recognize and describe sexual harassment, stalking, and abusive and illegal behavior.
  8. Recognize and demonstrate safe and healthy relationships, including what to do if you are being stalked or harassed.

This curriculum takes a multifaceted approach to teaching these skills based on current research and best practices for students with autism and other special needs students.*

Because these students are visual learners, video peer modeling and video self modeling (VSM) are the most important teaching techniques. Also essential are role playing and practicing new skills that assist teens with generalizing their learning to other situations outside of the classroom. Finally, a wide variety of interactive teaching methods are necessary because these students need to repeatedly practice the same material.

* “An emerging body of research demonstrates great promise for the use of video modeling (peer or adult as model) and video self-modeling (VSM) as a therapeutic modality for individuals with ASD.” “These teaching techniques are effective interventions strategies for addressing social-communication skills, behavioral function, and functional skills in children and adolescents with ASD. Specifically, these procedures promote skill acquisition and skills acquired via video modeling and VSM are maintained over time and transferred across person and settings.”
Bellini, S. (2006). Building Social Relationships: A Systematic Approach to Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Difficulties, APC Autism Asperger Publishing Co. Shawnee Mission: Kansas

Video Modeling: Bad Day and Good Day

Key resources for the curriculum are the two Mike’s Crush videos, written and produced specifically for the program. The videos help students discover the difference between incorrect and appropriate social behavior.

The videos use professional actors to demonstrate over-the-top examples of BAD DAY scenarios that are easily recognized and realistic in a high school environment. The same school, students, and scenarios are then replaced with what a GOOD DAY would look like, including role modeling a better way to approach relationships.

Video #1 Mike’s Very Bad Day is an extreme example of how teens should NOT behave if they have a crush on a girl at school. Throughout the video, other students tell Mike that what he is doing is not useful, but he does not listen. This video also shows some consequences of not following the rules and laws that apply to “romantic relationships” and how a victim of stalking feels.

Video #2 Mike’s Good Day at School dramatizes how a healthy and positive relationship develops over time, providing a positive role model of a high school crush. The GOOD DAY scenario gives concrete examples of better ways to approach relationships, and demonstrates situations that can be used as models when developing a friendship.

Both videos have been written to be entertaining but make the point that there is a right way and a wrong way to develop a romantic relationship.

How to use the course

This curriculum is appropriate for youth with a wide range of disabilities including autism, intellectual, and learning disabilities.

The lessons are written for use by many types of instructors including health teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, nurses, or social workers, depending on the students and the structure of the school. The course is also recommended for use by therapists, disability organizations, and socialization groups outside the structure of a school.

Lessons should be taught to small groups of students with similar needs. This information is best taught slowly, in small groups and with only students with disabilities in the classroom.

Although the curriculum is eight lessons, learning the material correctly takes time and practice. In fact, the lessons are most effective when taught over a period or months, not weeks.

Teachers can use the lessons as written, adapt them, or use the videos alone. It is up to each teacher to determine what specific information is relevant to the students, what skills the students are able to master, and how much time will be needed to discuss and practice the material in this curriculum.

Program Summary

  • Rationale
  • Teaching Model
  • Goal of the Program
  • Learning Objectives

How to Use the Videos

  • Introduction
  • DVD Menu
    • Mike’s Very Bad Day
    • Mike’s Good Day at School
    • Paired Segments
    • Extras Menu
  • Description of Lessons and Videos

How to Use This Curriculum

  • Introduction
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Families and Caregivers
  • Class Composition/Class Size/Time Frame/Handouts
  • Confidentiality/Disclosures
  • Using Video Modeling and Video Self-Modeling (VSM)
  • Peer Video Modeling Resources
  • Vocabulary


Lesson 1: Introduction

  • Class rules
  • Confidentiality
  • Assessment

Lesson 2: Appearance Matters

  • Good grooming and dress
  • Compliments

Lesson 3: Relationships

  • Understanding high school relationships

Lesson 3: Body Language

  • Positive, negative, and romantic body language

Lesson 4: Starting a Conversation

  • How to start a conversation
  • Identifying common interests
  • Identifying when someone does and does not want to talk to you

Lesson 5: Getting to Know Someone

  • Listening skills
  • Talking to peers
  • How to get to know someone better

Lesson 6: Rules and Laws

  • Understanding rules and laws
  • Consequences
  • NO means NO

Lesson 7: What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?

  • Understanding healthy relationships
  • Write a script about healthy relationships

Table of Contents

Nancy Nowell, MPA, MEd, CSE
Certified Sexuality Educator

Over the course of Ms. Nowell’s career she has worked with people who have disabilities of all ages; from infants through adults, in both residential and school settings, with families and self-advocates.  In recent years she became concerned with the high rate of sexual assault experienced by all people with disabilities and learned how few resources were available.

After graduating with a degree in Human Sexuality Education from Widener University in 2002 she obtained additional training in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), victims of sexual assault, consent, problematic and sexual offending behavior.

Each of these areas requires a specialized knowledge and skills when working with people who have learning or intellectual disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum.  She founded Social Signals to develop educational materials designed that provide a structured, specialized approach to common adolescent and young adult relationship issues.

Ms. Nowell’s Training and Experience
  •  Over 35 years working with children, adolescents, and adults who are on the autism spectrum or have intellectual disabilities.
  •  Masters Degree in Human Sexuality Education
  •  Certified Sexuality Educator
  • Currently teaching in 25 classrooms across the Philadelphia area
  • Nine years teaching middle and high school students who have autism, Asperger’s, and intellectual disabilities about; puberty, boundaries, relationships, understanding your body, sexual abuse risk reduction, relationship rules and laws.
  • 2007 Emerging Professional Award from the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) and the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

Settings and Visuals

“‘Mike’s Very Bad Day’ is stunning with its realism and can connect with anyone in America.  The actual location is never given, but this is a blessing because teens can imagine Mike living in their home town.  The creators may have been going for this, or maybe not, but this makes it all the better.  The camerawork is excellent and the editing spot-on. 10 out of 10 stars.”
~ Robert Taverner


“It is helping me to become confident.”
~ Tori

“Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to help teach us what we need to know about relationship and how to handle them appropriately.”
~ Alyssa

 “It’s been great spending time with you and you have {taught} me lots of valuable lessons and I thank you for that.”
~ Matt

“Thank you for teaching us about relationships.  Also meeting Mike (the actor in Mike’s Crush) was really cool.”


“Thank you all who were involved in the making of “Mike’s Crush”.  This is definitely an incredible teaching tool for our family.  It gave me the opportunity to actually discuss many issues with my daughter — because she could actually SEE and HEAR each situation and was able to relate to many of them.  The “Good Day” / “Bad Day” format is just perfect.”

“She has watched the movie many times and has written her own notes to discuss with me.  Mike’s Crush was able to relay potential serious/important issues to my daughter in a very interesting and effective way — It certainly was a lot more productive than I talking/talking/talking to her — and more enjoyable for her than hearing my voice. Mike’s Crush gets an A+. Again, thanks to all who were responsible for the idea and the making of Mike’s Crush — a wonderful movie!   You all deserve an award!!  Keep the movies coming!!”
~ Carol Amaradio

Disability Professionals

“Understanding relationships is a complex matter for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other conditions. The art of communication, the emotions and the behaviors need to be balanced and appropriate. Teaching the subtleties of interpersonal relationships and dating skills requires clear instructions and visual material.  In my clinical practice, I use Social Signals programs and recommend it to my colleagues in the field of psychology and education. The program provides different models and guidelines to ensure successful relationships and positive experience for students.”
~Isabelle Hénault, PhD  Psychologist and Sexologist, Author – Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality, Jessica Kingsley Publishers

“Nancy has taught special education and worked directly with students and their families and she has worked with both victims and offenders.  Her materials and methods are practical and pragmatic, and I highly recommend them.

In Mike’s Crush, I have been able to use specific video segments as well as the curriculum representing various social interactions, good and bad, in my relationship development series. Mike’s Crush is a tremendous resource to me.”
~ Lawrence R. Sutton, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Certified School Psychologist

“I met Nancy Nowell ten years ago when she was refining for the Commonwealth of PA a program for intellectually disabled persons with sexual behavior problems.   Since that time she has continued to teach Intellectually Disabled  students healthy sexuality and relationships, and has developed the first of its kind video curriculum to demonstrate the dos and don’ts of courtship and related behavior for this population.  Over the years I have had the opportunity to consult with her on Intellectually Disabled individuals I have treated, and she always provides a grounded sounding board for client’s sexuality issues.”
~ Tom Graves MS PhD

“I am a teacher of high school students with Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have a daily social skills class during which we cover many of the obstacles that are faced by this age group. My students have the most difficulty in the area of boy/girl relationships. Ms. Nancy Nowell has worked with my students for many years and has shared, with me, her resources from her company Social Signals.”

“One particular DVD has been most helpful. It is entitled Mike’s Crush. This is a high quality DVD with real actors and has been a very powerful teaching tool in my class. It demonstrates the wrong way to handle yourself when one has a crush on a girl, and then it demonstrates the right way to accomplish developing a good relationship with someone. It is a drama that is done with humor and presents its many messages in a clear and understandable way. It effectively covers many issues from personal hygiene to stalking. My students have consistently enjoyed watching it and have benefitted from it in many ways. I highly recommend it to anyone who is teaching the skills needed in this area!”
~ Kelly Ann Zurga, M.Ed., Council Rock School District, Pennsylvania

Feel free to listen to this helpful webinar by Heidi Rueda that discusses disability and dating.

~ Heidi Rueda, MSW, PhD., University of Nebraska at Omaha

Mike’s Crush Sample Lesson

This video accompanies the sample lesson plan: