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Sexuality education is vital for teens with intellectual disabilities

Sexuality education is vital for teens with intellectual disabilities

It is common for parents to request help with sexuality education for their pre-teen and teenage children. However, parents are truly at a loss when their child has an intellectual, cognitive or developmental disability. Anxiety about how much is enough and how much is too much can plague parents and teachers alike. Sexuality education often stays on the back burner--until puberty sets in or a problem arises. Then it can no longer be ignored.

Many parents ask, “Does my child really need sexuality education?” The answer is an emphatic yes. A person with a cognitive, intellectual or developmental disability needs the same information about sexuality that everyone else needs in order to be a safe, healthy and responsible member of the community. This article provides first steps for parents and teachers--and clears up some misunderstandings about social and sexual development of individuals with intellectual disabilities.


Do distinguish sexuality from sex

It is important to distinguish sexuality from sex. They are not the same. Our sexuality is our first identity and an important part of our personality. It is how we are recognized and treated by others as a boy, girl, man or woman. It is how we recognize and relate to others. While sexuality includes sex and reproduction, it is a much larger subject.

Do recognize that everyone has sexuality, but not everyone has sex

From the instant that a sperm and egg join together, many aspects of sexuality have been determined: Gender, cell differentiation and growth, and other biological processes. But biology is not everything. Sexuality includes identity, personal social boundaries, self-concept, body image, social and spiritual values, emotional expression, personal preferences, desires, relationships and community social expectations, to name a few.

Do present content in ways that address a teen’s unique learning style

Remember that the term, sexuality education, refers to a huge array of subjects, including personal care, anatomy and physiology, sexual health, relationships, social boundaries, expressions of attraction and love, privacy, abuse prevention and reproduction. It does not teach or encourage intimate sexual activity. All of the subjects that are part of sexuality are important aspects of our individual personalities, regardless of whether or not we also have a disability.

Teens and adults with intellectual disabilities need to have much of the same information that everyone else requires in order to function as safe and responsible adults in our culture and community. However, they need that content communicated in ways that address their unique learning styles. When the learning strategies of special education are applied to sexuality education, real learning happens. We all can use special education techniques to make our learning and remembering easier. But students requiring special education often cannot learn effectively without them.

Techniques, such as using icons instead of words, using color coding to make strong associations, reducing the amount of information that is presented at one time, repeating important information, using role play, experiential and interactive learning, and developing a system of rewards and tokens to encourage specific behaviors are just some of the special education strategies that can be applied to social/sexual learning. Extra practice in an array of low-risk locations and situations can help to generalize concepts and behaviors from one area of life to another. If meaningful sexuality education is not being offered in you school district, you can raise awareness of the need to institute this subject.

Do understand that meaningful education can reduce sexual victimization

Sexual abuse is defined as forcing, threatening, coercing, tricking or manipulating another person into unwanted sexual contact or sexual contact to which that person is unable to consent. Sexual victimization of youth and adults with intellectual disabilities occurs way too frequently. In fact, a person with a disability is between six and 10 times more likely to experience sexual abuse than their same-age, same-sex peers without disabilities, according to various sources.

Abusers find that people with intellectual disabilities make good victims. This is not because they wear seductive clothing or are spectacularly gorgeous. Rather, victims are chosen by their abusers because abusers know that those with intellectual disabilities have been taught to be cooperative and non-assertive, and to do what they are told. These victims typically have not had good training in recognizing social boundaries and consequently, do not recognize when they are being encroached upon. Victims sometimes have poor language skills to share what has happened to them or to organize their thoughts into a cogent story. Consequently, many incidents go unreported.

The importance of having friends and a strong social support system cannot be overemphasized. They act as antidotes to loneliness and vulnerability. People who are desperate for attention and stimulation will do whatever is necessary to acquire these prizes, even submit to an abusive relationship. Strong social support, coupled with meaningful sexuallity education, can go a long way to reducing sexual victimization of people with intellectual disabilities.

Do be aware of the lack of specific training in sexuality education

Unfortunately, colleges and universities that educate teachers do little or nothing to teach future teachers about this subject. Special educators are experts in using educational techniques, but do not have specific training in sexuality education. Health Ed teachers are likely to know a great deal about sexuality education, but little about teaching students with unique learning characteristics.

Also, when sexuality becomes a problem at home, in the classroom or in the community, parents are reluctant to seek help from school personnel because they do not want the issue to become part of their child’s school record.


Do not overlook an individual’s sexuality

Do not forget that every teenager or young adult will become a man or a woman. People are not just their disability. They are sexual beings and their sexuality should not be ignored.

Do not underestimate the dangers of social isolation

A system of social support and friendships can reduce vulnerability to sexual abuse. Isolating a youngster with an intellectual disability is not keeping him or her safe. In fact, social isolation makes that young person more vulnerable. Providing supervision and interesting activities with others can be more difficult for parents when school services end and adult services take their place. Ally with other parents you trust on access to recreation, driving, supervision and community subsidy.

Do not fail to teach self-advocacy

Teaching a person to be overly compliant to authority can undermine his or her ability to resist unwanted sexual advances. It may seem easier in the short run to have a cooperative and easy-to-manage child or teen, but in the long run, being able to self-advocate in mature ways is a better goal.

Do not ignore the signs of sexual abuse

Reports of sexual abuse by individuals with an intellectual disability are sometimes ignored by parents or authorities. But this must not be allowed to happen. If sexual abuse is even suspected, an investigation is warranted. Do not ignore signs of sexual abuse, such as changes in sleep patterns, depression, enuresis or encopresis, dramatic weight change, bleeding from reproductive areas, or unreasonable fears of specific places or people.

Jumping cartoon

Because sexuality education is a very important subject for special education students, parents must advocate for a meaningful program in their local school district. A teen or young adult with a disability has sexuality--and must learn to express this part of his/her personality in ways that are consistent with the community’s standards for behavior, as well as personal and cultural values. Knowledge of social boundaries and having access to friends and family provide the information and strength for those with disabilities to be more resistant to sexual victimization.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: © Antonioguillem -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Leslie Walker-Hirsch, IMEd, FAAIDDSocial Development and Sexuality Practitioner

Leslie Walker-Hirsch is the author of the award winning book, The Facts of Life...and More (Brookes, 2007) and the co-creator of the CIRCLES® Curriculum Series (Stanfield, 2007). She is an internationally recognized educational consultant wh...

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