Educating Children About Sexuality

Mary Fitzpatrick Interviews Jim Delbianco

Teaching children about sexuality can be a daunting task. For parents of kids with disabilities it can be overwhelming, requiring the same time, patience, and creative teaching needed for dressing and toilet training.

Why is it important to teach kids with disabilities about sexuality?

All kids need to learn about sexuality. It doesn’t matter whether a person has autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida, or another disability; learning about sexuality is critical. Sexuality is a basic human right. It is part of what we are as human beings, part of relationship development, the "stuff" that binds people together.

Unless we teach our kids directly, they may absorb distorted information from TV, where they see casual, trivial, or worse, abusive and violent sex. Imitating such socially inappropriate and/or harmful behaviors can be dangerous as they get older.

What are the prerequisites for understanding sexuality?

Begin with basic concepts such as "near" and "far," finish" and "wait," "public," and "private." Parents and teachers may need to be explicit. Use dolls or pictures with non-readers. With readers, sit down together, read and discuss. Be concrete, referring to behaviors, locations, body parts and clothing. It’s surprising how hard it is to learn these abstract, relative concepts. Many kids have trouble because of their lack of understanding of spatial concepts, in general. Because we often give them little privacy, they have not experienced what we are talking about. These concepts build the foundation for further understanding of their sexuality.

Personal space. Once a person understands public and private, near and far, you can move into personal space. Kids need to learn appropriate levels of proximity and physical contact. Some places on the body are only touched in private or with permission. We may hug family members, but as adults, we greet new people by shaking hands. We compliment most friends and acquaintances with words, not hugs. We need to teach children very clearly how to ask for permission or get someone’s attention.

Anatomy. Teach anatomy after basic concepts. Point to and label body parts, using real names on anatomically correct figures, Include breasts and genitals. Again, be explicit, if necessary.

Body Language. Many kids lack the ability to interpret eye contact, gestures and facial expression in subtle social interaction. With a sexual partner, these skills are both delicate and imperative. When kids with disabilities feel uncomfortable or are in a dangerous situation, they sometimes laugh or smile. Misinterpreted, those responses can lead to trouble.

What about sexual urges?

Rules about personal space and appropriate physical contact are crucial for teens experiencing hormonal changes. If they are comfortable, teachers and parents should address masturbation, one of the most controversial topics in sexuality education. Whatever a family‘s beliefs and values, most would agree that public masturbation is unacceptable.

Appropriate interventions include:

  • Making sure there are no rashes, yeast infections or itchy clothing triggering the unacceptable behavior.
  • Eliminating other possible triggers such as inappropriate touching.
  • Increase supervision and redirect the child.

Activities for practice:

  • Name the places on the body that can only be touched in private.
  • List the people one can hug and kiss.
  • Role play getting another person‘s attention.
  • Discuss and role play keeping an arm‘s length from a peer as you stand in line, sit in morning circle, walk to the playground.
  • Cut out pictures or demonstrate activities for which it is permissible to get close to another: hugging mon and dad, wrestling with brother, holding a baby.
  • Practice asking permission to touch objects or people.

Seize embarassing moments as opportunities for instruction. Remember the positive. Usually when we talk to kids about sexuality, it involves some danger to them, such as abuse or sexually transmitted diseases. While these are all important subjects, kids should also know that sexuality can be an enjoyable and meaningful experience. All parents hope that their special child will have the emotional maturity to develop a meaningful loving relationship with another person. Regardless of the severity of their disability though, all children have a right to their own sexuality.

For this article, DDR board member Mary Fitzpatrick interviewed Jim Delbianco, a lifeskills support teacher at The Pathfinder School. A Special Education teacher at the Pathfinder School for 33 years, Jim gives workshops on sexuality for children with disabilities, parents, teachers and other professionals. He can be reached at 412-531-6537 or by email. Some portions of the article were excerpted from Introduction to sexuality education for individuals who are deaf-blind and significantly developmentally delayed Introduction to Sexuality Education for Individuals Who are Deaf-Blind and Significantly Developmentally Delayed by Kate Moss and Robbie Blaha, available free from 800-438-9376 or the National Consortium on Deaf-Blindedness.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 8, Number 3 - Spring, 2003]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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Page last modified: February 23, 2009
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