Children with special needs are like everybody else—they have sexual feelings and needs. Unfortunately, their disabilities may also make them particularly vulnerable to predators and exploitation. Though humorous, the above cartoon demonstrates a common problem for children with special needs: the reluctance of parents and teachers to discuss issues that arise concerning sex and relationships. We get it, the topic has potential to be difficult or embarrassing. However, the fact that the subject may embarrass parents and teachers will not make the issues go away. Instead, it could wind up giving children the mistaken and unfortunate impression that there is something “bad” or “unnatural” about having sexual thoughts and feelings.
In order to educate everyone to be healthy, we need to accept the fact that (most of the time) sex is a natural and healthy thing. Adolescents with special needs, just as much, if not more, than other children need accurate and helpful information on the subject. In discussing subjects surrounding sex and relationships, parents and teachers should start by explaining that everyone has sexual thoughts and feelings.
Staying within social and sexual boundaries should be emphasized.
Here are some tips for talking about sex and relationships with your children and students:
1. Start with the most important notion
Adolescents and young adults should clearly understand that the choice to engage in conduct involving touching of a sexual or intimate nature is ultimately theirs and that no one has the right to touch them in private places without their permission or in ways that make them uncomfortable. Teach your values; but teach the facts too
2. Explain different types of touch
Children and adolescents with special needs have often been told not to let strangers or people they barely know touch them, so they may be confused when certain community workers need to touch them as part of an exam or to help aid them in some way. Therefore, students should be made aware that medical personnel, therapists, aides, etc., may need to touch their bodies for purposes tied in with their jobs, but that this touch is business-like and is not sexually gratifying for them. Students should know that they can also ask questions as to why they are being touched. Students who are unable to ask about or understand the reasons for being touched, should probably be accompanied by a caregiver who can explain these situations to them.
3. Take your time
Adolescents with special needs, like most young adults, can be overwhelmed if given too much information about a subject all at once, especially a sensitive subject such as this. Be prepared to cut it short when he or she indicates a sense of being overwhelmed. You can always return to the conversation later.
4. Emphasize the power of saying NO!
Children need to be told that they have the absolute right to say “no” to any touching or activity that they don’t feel comfortable with, or don’t really wish to participate in, and that no one should be allowed to pressure them into doing things that they don’t want to do. Emphasizing the power of saying “no” empowers students to advocate for their own sexual safety.
5. Illustrate the appropriate time/place for intimacy
At the same time, students should also be told that it is not “bad” to be affectionate or ultimately sexual with the right person at the appropriate time, as long as it reflects both people’s feelings and is based on mutual respect, consent, and love. What is important to stress here is the appropriate time, person, and place.
6. Use your own experiences as guidance
We have all been there at one time or another! A great way for adults to explain things to children about sex and relationships is to refer to their own experiences and feelings. Also remember to carefully listen to what children have to say and respond thoughtfully to their questions. Kids are naturally curious about this subject!
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At James Stanfield, We Think You Should Know:
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.