Human sexuality education for students with special needs.

Author:Sweeney, Liz


Carla Tate: I wonder who thought up sex? Daniel McMann: I think it was Madonna.

--The Other Sister

What does it mean to provide sexuality education to children and adolescents with special needs?

Charged with the responsibility of preparing children for the eventuality of adulthood, parents and educators face many challenges. Providing comprehensive sexuality education to children, teens, and young adults with special needs is a particularly important but often difficult task.

For people with disabilities, there are many obstacles to healthy sexuality. Often, the desire to keep our children safe also unintentionally keeps them dangerously in the dark. For young people with special needs there is particular tension between healthy sexuality and personal safety. They are vulnerable to societal myths and misconceptions; are taught to be compliant to authority; and are at higher risk for sexual abuse. (2)

However, human sexuality education for children with intellectual disabilities has tangible and significant benefits. These include improved social skills, assertiveness and independence; positive changes in behavior, such as adopting more acceptable expressions of sexuality; as well as reduced risk of sexual abuse, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. (3) Preparing youngsters for the responsibilities and choices of adulthood helps to further living, working, and socializing in personally meaningful ways within the community. A simultaneous goal for families and educators is to keep teens safe as they negotiate this path.

Unfortunately, people with developmental disabilities often do not acquire adequate knowledge regarding sexuality (4) and even though sexuality is a universal human trait, sexual expression on the part of people with disabilities can provoke strong negative reactions. The "rules" surrounding sexuality for individuals with disabilities are frequently not the same as those imposed on the rest of society. (5)

With a pro-active approach, parents, advocates, community agencies and all those who know or work with youngsters with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities can provide essential education about sex and relationships and appropriate sexual expression.

Every child has the right to understand his or her own development in an accurate and positive way.



Cultural Considerations

What hurdles might parents and educators need to overcome when they teach youngsters with special needs about human sexuality?

Fear and Avoidance, Denial and Doubt

For a variety of reasons, parents and educators frequently find human sexuality education a daunting task.

Although human sexuality is varied and complex, in the educational realm this broad subject often becomes focused on the narrow concept of sexual intercourse, the realities of which provoke understandable concern by adults on behalf of the youngsters in their care.

At a personal level, discussing sex and sexuality with any child can make parents and educators uncomfortable, and in the particular case of youngsters with special needs, anxieties and concerns are frequently intensified. Cultural, ethical, religious, and moral issues influence sexuality (6), and as such, prescribed sex education is notoriously controversial. Parents, community leaders, educators and teens may find themselves at odds over information and attitudes they consider appropriate.

Some parents and institutions avoid sex education in the belief that a child or teen who doesn't know about sex will have no desire to express his or her sexuality. Many caregivers struggle with presenting difficult concepts in ways that youngsters with special needs might understand, and after failed attempts, may give up altogether. (7) In general, sexuality in people with developmental disabilities is commonly regarded as a problem, rather than an affirming part of human life. (8)

But by beginning early, and through practice and repetition and a positive attitude, parents can overcome some of the common awkwardness associated with the topic. It's never too early to learn the correct names for body parts, for example.

Human sexuality education should be seen as an ongoing process and not a one-time lecture. Caregivers can arm themselves with a firm knowledge base, learn to convey information over time, and continue to seek professional support, all of which will help ease many of the underlying concerns that contribute to sex education being withheld from people with disabilities.


Myths and Stereotypes

At the community level, persistent myths and stereotypes still linger concerning the sexuality of people with disabilities. Common misconceptions include ideas that people with developmental disabilities are asexual--kind of perpetual children--or conversely, that they are sexually impulsive. (9)

Subscribing to such myths and misconceptions is problematic. If people with developmental delays are seen as sexually impulsive for example, any offending behavior is therefore seen as uncontrollable. On the other hand, if the individual is viewed as child-like or asexual, sexually offensive behavior is likely to be denied or minimized. Both conclusions remove consequences from an individual's actions, in effect excluding that person from a chance to learn more appropriate sexual behavior. (10)


The truth is that sexuality is an integral part of every person's life from infancy, (11) and no matter what cognitive abilities a person might have, growth into adulthood combines a physically maturing body and a range of sexual and social needs and feelings. It should also be recognized that adults with developmental delays are different from children in appearance, past life events, and available life choices. (12)

It is essential that all those who work and live with individuals with special needs guard against making inaccurate assumptions. By avoiding misinformation and a restrictive attitude towards the sexuality of developmentally delayed individuals, and by recognizing sexuality as a multidimensional process that crosses the lifespan, healthy sexuality can be championed and celebrated.

Education and training opportunities for people with disabilities have expanded significantly in the last thirty years, with government mandates backing universal access to education, and more students moving out of special schools and into mainstream classrooms with support. With greater independence and self-sufficiency, people with disabilities are also choosing to marry and/or become sexually involved.

In 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act), which guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state across the country.

Amendments to the law and an eventual name change led to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA Amendments of 1997 support initiatives for transition services from high school to adult living...

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