Sexuality is a part of everyone’s life.
All too often the perception is that people with developmental and/or cognitive disabilities are not interested in or have the ability to be involved in intimate relationships that most of us take for granted. This is not true.
For example, the National Down Syndrome Society indicates that creating an environment conducive to healthy sexual expression must be considered in designing educational, vocational, social, recreational and residential programs. Positive sexual awareness can only develop through personal empowerment, self-esteem, understanding of social relationships and personal interaction/communication skills. All these factors influence how intimacy needs are met.
The emotional ups and downs that are common in adolescence are also present in pre-teens and teens with disabilities. As with all children, they will have questions and wonder about some of the feelings they are experiencing and the changes their bodies are going through. We do a real disservice to them if we ignore these facts.
Without any knowledge or explanations, they may develop fears and anxiety about what is really perfectly normal. It is vital for children to have the facts so that they are not vulnerable to unintended pregnancy, sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted infections.
It is a sad truth that those in our society with disabilities are often targets of sexual predators. Arming them with information and confidence can help lessen their risk. The more you talk openly and honestly with them about sexuality, the safer they will be.
Children with disabilities need the same information and education about puberty and sexuality as other pre-teens and teens. When talking to youth about sex, their ability to understand the material needs to be taken into consideration. However, it is important to cover all the bases and not skip over anything. Many teenagers and adults with disabilities understand more about sexual development, sexual activity and pregnancy than their parents and others would expect. One must be mindful to focus on not just the physical sexual act and reproduction, but also with decision-making, cultural norms, peer pressure, relationships, and social skills. The conversations can take place over a period of time and some of the information may need to be repeated.
All children need to be taught the difference between good touch and bad touch. They also need to understand that it is ok to say no to anything that makes them feel uncomfortable – not just with strangers, but with acquaintances and friends too! “No” and “Stop” can be very powerful (and empowering) words and they need to know that they can use them. They also need to know that it is not their fault if someone makes them uncomfortable and that they should also tell a trusted adult if something happens. In addition, they need to learn boundaries for their touching others. Sadly, since many children with disabilities are not taught boundaries, they can get into trouble surrounding inappropriate touch.
Building healthy relationships is key to happiness and satisfaction for so many; it is no different for many kids with disabilities.
It is my thought that we should approach the teaching of issues and information surrounding puberty and sexuality for youth with disabilities much the same way we do for other youth – with honesty, compassion, and understanding. Factual information about their bodies, what is happening (or will be happening) will help them through what is a challenging time.
With an understanding of the changes they are going to encounter, the feelings they may experience, and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, they will have the tools they need to be healthy and safe both physically and emotionally.