By: Dina DiGregorio Karlon, M.A.
Transition Specialist, NESCA
Sexuality is something that connects all humans throughout the lifespan. We, as parents, want to see our children as forever young and protect them. For many parents it is extremely difficult to consider our children as sexual beings. Add the complexity of having a child with a developmental disability, and it appears even more challenging; yet ironically, it is even more important. Here are some reasons why:
People with developmental disabilities are not children. While many people believe that children with disabilities are childlike and dependent on others, their humanity and independence should be respected. They have desires and needs similar to others. They deserve to have access to information which will help the make good choices and have healthy relationships.
Sexual education should be taught according to one’s biological age, not cognitive age. Most children with disabilities experience physical changes (i.e., puberty) at the same time as their neurotypical peers. Therefore, sexuality education should be given to them at similar times as peers, but the delivery needs to be the different – one which allows them to access the information.
Sexual education is a protective factor. Educating people with disabilities about sexuality is a protective factor for them, because it provides the knowledge they need to protect themselves against sexual crimes, unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancies and unhealthy relationships. Information is power.
Understanding sexuality will not encourage your children to have sex. Giving individuals with developmental disabilities sexuality education will not put the idea to embark on sexual explorations in their heads. Giving them access to sexuality education gives them information and ultimately the power to make educated choices about their bodies.
People with disabilities are significantly more likely to be a victim of a sexual or violent crime than their non-disabled peers. Understanding consent and sexual advocacy empowers people to protect themselves from being the predator or the prey by learning about concepts, such as, “my body, my choice” and “no means no.”
Much of the general population learns about sexuality and relationships from friends. This means that some of the information they receive about sexuality is not always accurate. People with disabilities may not have as many friendships as their peers without disabilities. Those with developmental disabilities tend to be more isolated, so they do not have the opportunity to learn from friends. Often, they learn about sexuality information from parents and television. Another concern is the ease with which the internet provides sexual information. Access to pornography and posting pictures can be confusing to a person with a disability who doesn’t understand the legal, privacy and employment implications, putting them at even greater risk. So, as parents, it’s very important to give accurate information or seek out professionals who can work with your child.
Sexuality education does not teach sexual values. Parents are the ones who should be teaching their children with and without disabilities about their values around sex. Sexuality education focuses on teaching accurate information in a format that students can access and understand. It is then incumbent upon those students to develop their own values.
Because of the nature of some disabilities, picking up on social cues is challenging. So much of relationships is understanding verbal and non-verbal social cues, so many people with disabilities can struggle with identifying healthy relationships. It makes it easier for others to take advantage of them, instead of enjoying a relationship with both partners on equal footing. Therefore, it is important to teach social skills as part of sexuality education.
There are common universal values:
- It is important to respect others by treating them well and listening to them.
- It is important to get consent from a partner before being sexual with them.
- Relationships should be equal and positive without violence or abuse.
When discussing sex with your children, it’s okay not to have all the answers and to ask for a pause, take a break or a deep breath, and return later with more information. There are always plenty of opportunities for teachable moments. We know that people with disabilities can take in a great deal of information, and sexuality education is critical information to have healthy, sexual relationships. So, while we hate to see our children grow up, we all want the same things – to see them be happy and belong in an appropriate and respectful, safe way.
NESCA has personnel trained to provide sexuality education training to parents and to teens and young adults with disabilities. Training can be done one-on-one or in a group. If you are interested in learning more, contact Dina DiGregorio Karlon at (603)818-8526 to set up a consultation.
About the Author:
Dina DiGregorio Karlon, M.A., is a seasoned counselor who has worked as both a school counselor and vocational rehabilitation counselor, guiding and coaching students and adults through transitions toward independence in both college and the working world. With NESCA, she offers transition assessment services in Londonderry, New Hampshire as well as transition planning consultation and coaching to students and families throughout New England.
To book Transition Services at NESCA or an evaluation with one of our expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. To book Transition Services in N.H., ask for Dina Karlon.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.