Talking with your child about sex is uncomfortable for any parent. When you have a child with a developmental disability, like Autism, Down syndrome, or an Intellectual Disability, it can be especially difficult to know when and how to approach this topic. It is important that parents not shy away from conversations about sex because people with developmental disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Sexual education has been shown to reduce this risk of abuse, while also teaching people with disabilities the skills needed to form healthy, meaningful romantic relationships.
Daily Teachable Moments
While sexual education can seem daunting, there are ways to work these lessons into your daily routine that are simple and (relatively!) painless. While there may be a temptation to sit your child down and have “The Talk,” this will likely lead to information overload. Instead, look for teachable moments.
For young children, you can start by labeling body parts during bath time. While getting dressed, teach your child that some body parts are safe to show other people, and some body parts need to stay covered up. Also teach that there are certain people who can see or touch private body parts, like doctors, certain family members, and care providers – teach your child who these people are and under what specific circumstances they can see your child’s private body parts. Older children may begin noticing changes in their body. Teach them that this is normal and tell them what other changes they can expect as puberty begins.
For older adolescents and young adults, there may be scenes in their favorite movies or TV shows that show people on a date; you can watch these scenes together and talk about the dating process. Who is it appropriate to date? How do you ask someone on a date? How should you behave on a date?
These are just a few examples. Think about what your child is experiencing and hearing about from other people their age; then, look for moments to help your child understand those experiences or topics.
At all ages, it is important to emphasize consent. Everyone involved in your child’s care (even you!) should ask before helping with things like showering, toileting, and other activities that involve touching your child’s body. This teaches your child that their body is theirs, and when someone tries to touch their body without permission, it is a signal that something is wrong. Teach your child other signs that something is not okay, such as an adult asking them to keep a secret. Identify people your child could tell if someone touches them or treats them in a way that doesn’t feel right to them.
Practice and Repetition
With all these concepts, keep in mind that children with developmental disabilities learn best with repetition and practice. Visual supports like videos, picture books, and social stories can be helpful teaching aids. Role playing is helpful for teaching social skills like asking someone on a date or ending a relationship. Use language that is simple, direct, and concrete. Remember, you do not need to know all the answers! If your child asks a question you can’t answer (or don’t feel comfortable answering), it is okay to table that question for another time.
Hopefully, these suggestions give you an idea of where to start!
Upcoming local informational events:
Navigating Sexuality in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)