Every person needs love and intimacy. It is a human right to express and receive affection and love and explore one’s sexuality. This is true for children and youth, regardless of their physical, mental, or emotional development.
Every child will develop into a sexually mature adult. They will need to make wise decisions about their sexual health and relationships, including how to stay safe from sexually transmitted infections and sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, reports indicate that children with developmental disabilities are sexually abused more than twice as much as children without developmental disabilities. Children with developmental disabilities are often taught to be compliant and made more vulnerable through an inherent lack of privacy and dependence on a large number of caregivers.
A child with a developmental disability will go through the same social and sexual developmental stages as any other child, just at a different rate. The information your child needs is the same as any other child. When and how you present the information will be as unique as your child’s learning needs.
Most people with developmental disabilities have difficulty with abstraction. Simply put, your child may have a hard time visualizing what you’re talking about, so you need to make the information you provide concrete.
Here are some tips to help you make sexuality concrete:
- Keep the information simple and review it often.
- Use appropriate drawings or other images to illustrate what you are saying.
- Keep your child’s caregivers informed. To avoid confusion, make sure that the adults in your child’s life use similar language and concepts.
- Use family photos to explain relationships.
- Use anatomically correct models and dolls to explain private and public body parts.
- Use real-life stories and examples of private and public behaviour.
- Role-play appropriate affection and boundaries.
- Practice saying “no” to unwanted touch.
Talk to your local disability association and include your doctor in seeking information on the medical needs – including contraception, safer sex practices and pleasurable positioning – that need to be addressed for your child to enjoy a safe and satisfying sexual life.
As with all children, social skills are developed through experience. Intentional or unintentional isolation will never do. Despite the additional planning and worries that accompany parenting a child with a developmental disability, be interested in and encourage relationships with peers.