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The Importance of Teaching Sex Ed in Special Education

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January 02, 2024


It’s a topic many don’t like to talk about. Around kids, we don’t always say that we are talking about sex. Rather, we say we are talking about “The Birds and the Bees.” Despite the adults’ and the kids’ discomfort, sex is a subject that needs to be talked about, talked about candidly, and talked about frequently. The teen years are a confusing time for all kids, but kids with special needs face additional, unique challenges. It is especially important that these kids get comprehensive sex education, yet they don’t in many schools.

Nationwide sex ed programs vary from being extremely comprehensive to talking only about abstinence. State laws, local culture, purchased curriculum and more impact what each individual school teaches, but what serves kids best is to be upfront and honest about sex and their bodies.Children with intellectual disabilities often don’t have the social skills to know what is and isn’t appropriate. Children with special needs are at large risk of being sexually assaulted. In fact, according to NPR, “People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times that for people without disabilities.”

Sometimes, parents and teachers fear that if we talk to kids about sex that it will drive them to be sexually active earlier than they would otherwise, but the truth is that educating kids about sex actually makes them more likely to make good choices. Educating kids empowers them to keep themselves safe and make good choices about sex.

What do we need to teach our students?What’s the best approach? Especially for those with disabilities?

Hygiene and Body Changes: It’s important to teach kids about their bodies and how they’re changing. They need to learn to take care of their bodies (shaving, deodorant, bathing, etc.). While for many this comes naturally, some kids with special needs don’t focus on their appearance or hygiene which makes them a target for bullies.Walk kids through each step. Use pictures and concrete examples so that they know exactly what’s expected of them. Even better, use the First Impressions series to show students methods they can use to maintain good hygiene. Students will love the humorous videos that make the concepts easy to understand and enjoyable.Normalize: With all the changes their bodies are going through kids can feel like aliens from another planet. It’s important to reassure them that these changes are normal, and that everyone goes through them. They might feel bad for having sexual thoughts and feelings or might feel confused. Knowing that what they are feeling is normal will help them build confidence to make good choices.Be Direct: It’s important to be direct with kids, especially those who have special needs. The indirect language we often use to talk about sex is unhelpful and confusing for kids. For example, upon hearing the term ‘sleeping together’ a child with autism might assume that two people are simply sleeping in the same bed. Instead, use anatomically correct terms for body parts and correct terms for sexual acts.Break it Down: Just like other skills we teach kids, teaching kids about sex ed requires breaking information down into smaller chunks. It’s important to have ongoing conversations rather than just a lesson or two. It takes kids time to digest new information. Keep it simple and answer any questions.

Beyond the Individual

Teach About Relationships: Because kids with special needs are especially vulnerable to abuse it is especially important to teach them about healthy and unhealthy relationships. They need to know how they should be treated in a relationship. Further, they need to know how they can stand up for themselves and keep themselves safe.A proven-effective method to teach students about relationships to keep them safe from abuse is through the Circles Intimacy & Relationships Curriculum.

Circles is a concrete, organizational paradigm for students with special educational needs. It helps them learn to act and interact in self-enhancing ways by learning about different kinds of relationships and appropriate touch, talk, and trust with each type.

Circles makes abstract ideas concrete, helping students ‘see’ social boundaries. Bonus: a new version has just been released and emphasizes topics like consensus, mutuality, and even cyber safety.

Explore The ResourcesIt may be awkward, but it’s important to teach kids about sex so they can keep themselves safe and lead happy, productive lives. There are a lot of valuable resources out there to help start the talk.  Try different approaches to keep students interested in their sexual health. For starters, check out the library of Family Life & Relationships resources available from the James Stanfield Company.By: Amy CurlettoAmy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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