Unfortunately this myth often means that children and youth with disabilities do not receive any sexuality information and education. People with disabilities are sexual beings like everyone else. They can give and receive love, have sexual relationships and have children. Assuming that your child/youth will not grow up to be sexually active can be harmful. This can lead to them being abused or involved in unhealthy relationships because they do not know how to look after their bodies and deal with relationships. Sexuality education should be considered a life skill just like skills for everyday living such as hygiene or healthy eating.
Parenting a child with a disability every day can be a challenge! Parents who’ve decided to add sexuality education to the life skills they teach their children are often surprised at how well it goes. It’s very tough if you are trying to navigate basic skills such as toileting and then you have to add on teaching that same child about menstruation. However, it’s not something that can be ignored; it won’t just go away. You are not alone and can turn to professionals and family/friends for guidance and help. Talk to other parents in the same situation about techniques and strategies that work for them.
As a parent or service provider of a youth with a disability, you are probably already very creative. Try to choose material that will suit your youth. You may need to use flash cards, videos, cartoons and in lots of cases hands on learning (e.g., teaching about hygiene during puberty). Don’t assume that they don’t want to learn about growing up, relationships and dating.
Children and teens in general learn about sexuality from the world around them – TV, movies, music, and overheard conversations on the school bus. Sometimes children with disabilities do not have the same opportunities to engage in the social world. They may stay with the same group of peers for many years and not really experience much diversity. Therefore you can’t assume what they will know.
In terms of sexual development, this will depend upon the child. Some conditions/syndromes/diseases may advance or delay puberty changes. It’s important that you speak with your doctor about when to expect secondary sexual characteristics such as menstruation so that you can prepare your child. You may not get the same kinds of clues that puberty changes are occurring (e.g., mood swings, etc.) but remember that every child is different. Puberty usually occurs over several years and comes in phases.
Pre-school children should know the correct names for body parts and that there is a difference between the digestive and reproductive systems (e.g., babies grow in the uterus, not the stomach, and are born through the vagina). They can also learn that their bodies are private.
School aged children should be prepared for puberty before it starts so that they are not taken by surprise. They should be aware of the physical, emotional and social changes that will occur. Puberty does not happen overnight, each child is different and they may struggle with the fact that their friends are ahead of them.
The issues surrounding puberty should be discussed into the teen years and support about relationships and dating should be included, even if you are not ready for them to date. Teens do need to have information about abstinence, contraception and STIs, healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to look after their sexual health.
It can be confusing for children to have cute names for some of their body parts and not others. Children do not naturally understand social boundaries, so it’s important to gently tell them that talking about our bodies with others can cause embarrassment to some people. Explain that they can use the terminology when at home using the bathroom or bathing, for example, but not in front of everyone at a family birthday party! It may also be helpful to talk to friends and family about how important it is to you and your family to use the correct names for all body parts.
Rubbing or touching the genitals (masturbation) can create exciting and pleasurable feelings. Masturbation usually starts early in life when an infant discovers that touching the genital area can produce pleasurable feelings. It is natural for people of all ages to be curious about their bodies and find genital stimulation pleasurable.
How a parent reacts to a child’s masturbation may affect how the child will come to feel about their body. Parents (and grandparents) can help children to understand that rubbing or touching one’s genitals is not ‘bad’ or ‘abnormal’, but that it has its proper place. For example, rubbing the genitals is okay when done in a private place such as the bedroom.
For some teens, masturbation can be a good release of sexual tension and this can be difficult for parents to accept.
This is often a problem and of course we don’t want to dissuade a child from showing affection, just give them some guidance on what is socially appropriate and physically and emotionally safe. Unfortunately children with disabilities, especially as they get older, “live under the microscope” and are given a hard time for social mistakes.
Children will need very clear examples, nothing too vague. You may need to make up a pictorial guide of people that they can be affectionate with. It can take time to establish a new habit and much longer in many cases so you will need to give lots of positive reinforcement. Be sure to tell others who work with your child what you are doing and have them work on this also.
It is important to discuss and work on the distinction between friendship relationships and romantic relationships/love. Explain that romantic relationships are much more serious and encompassing. Talk about people in your own lives and the different types of relationships. You can also use examples from TV shows.
Some parents feel uncomfortable approaching a health professional about their child’s sexual development, but they shouldn’t. Often times a parent simply needs to have their mind put at rest. If your child has a disability or health condition, you may need to seek out specialist information about the physical changes of puberty.
It is most important to accept that your child is a sexual being and needs to understand their body, emotions and relationships. Accept the role of sexuality educator – you can make a huge difference!
It is common for providers to feel uncomfortable as they may feel that they will upset parents and families if they talk about sexuality. Research shows that comprehensive sexuality education is most effective when children learn from the people around them at home, at school, through their church, or in the community.
If parents specifically say that their child cannot join in with discussions about sexuality this must be respected; school boards have guidelines that must be followed allowing parents to opt their children out of sexuality education. Staff can work together to plan for sexuality education in their agencies to cover material about friendships, dating, puberty and personal boundaries.
For more tips and strategies for providers on talking about sexuality, click here