Sex education for children with disabilities has an unfortunate stigma around it. While trying to find resources for this very article, I realized that information on the subject is few and far between. While there is a plethora of information and controversy on sex education in public high schools across the state, it seemed like sex education for children with disabilities was virtually ignored. The majority of information I found on the topic was as a reaction to a student crisis, not an ongoing conversation or topic for children and teens with disabilities.
Although there is limited information on the topic, fortunately there are still those who write about it and have first-hand experience teaching social/sex education to children with disabilities. Tom Miller, an Education Director at Perkins School for the Blind, has taught social/sex education for many years to children that are blind or deaf-blind, as well as to children with autism. In addition, he recently returned from a teaching assignment in the Middle East, where he gained valuable experience with teaching social/sex education in another culture.
Miller is disappointed, as are many within the sexual health profession, that there is such a lack of curricula and information on sex education for people with disabilities. One of the main reasons he cited for this lack was society’s perception that people with disabilities are asexual. Society as a whole must move beyond this view and realize that children and adults with developmental or physical disabilities need quality sex education and are just as – if not more – at risk for poor sexual health outcomes as those in the mainstream of society. Of course, creating this change is not easy, but Miller stressed the importance of extensive staff training as well as working as a team with parents to teach social/sex education. Within his school, Miller views himself in a partnership with the parents and stresses that the parents begin teaching social/sex education to their children at an early age, explaining where babies come from and allowing small children to help with diapering and other tasks that involve the body.
One training that Miller utilizes, which was developed by Dr. Jean Edwards of the Edwards Center in Aloha, OR, focuses on a behavior plan of “Appropriate/Inappropriate” and “Public/Private.” This program allows the child with disabilities to define social/sexual behaviors into four workable categories and gives concrete terms to aid parents and service providers in defining and finding solutions or alternative behaviors in social/sex situations. For trainings, Miller has also adapted many teen sex education programs to the children he teaches with disabilities. The importance, he says, is adapting curricula that are well-done and evidence-based to the population you’re serving; it is easier to adapt curricula than start at square one and develop new curricula.
Another important part of teaching social/sex education to children with disabilities is interaction and role-playing. While working with children with autism, Miller has used the “Magic Circle” where, at the end of the day, the children sit around in a circle and debrief on their social situations for the day and talk about appropriate behavior.
Also within his programs, Miller has utilized a “Make a Date” game/program where children with disabilities get the opportunity to practice dating, learn how to ask someone to dance, and etc. One aspect of dealing with children with disabilities is that a lot of the time their lives are controlled by their parents and teachers. Because so much of their daily life is based on routine, they don’t get many opportunities to experiment and take chances. Within these role-playing “games,” children with disabilities get the opportunity to practice taking more chances and experimenting in life. Miller made sure during his “Make a Date” program that the children went to a new place they hadn’t been before and their date was chosen at random.
Miller stresses the importance of peer interaction with children with similar disabilities as well. During “Make a Date” the teens were also paired with teens with disabilities from another school to provide more of that interaction.
Just as with any child, starting the discussion about sex and relationships early is an important predictor of success. Too often children and teens with disabilities only receive sex education as an informal reaction to a problem, not as a formal part of their daily life. It’s important that children with disabilities start having social/sex education as part of their daily routine. It is also important that staff receive more training on dealing with children with disabilities, and that there is more development in curriculum for children with disabilities as well as more adaptation of curriculum. Although it looks like there is a long road ahead before social/sex education for children with disabilities becomes more a part of the mainstream, it is important that the topic continues being discussed and more information available for professionals and parents.
Resources for Professionals and Parents on Teaching Social/Sex Education to Children and Teens with Disabilities
Our Whole Lives, Pamela A. Johnson, MSW; Judith A. Frediani Developmental Editor; Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston: 1999
(This is the text Miller adapted to work with his students with disabilities)
Being Me (1979); Feeling Free (1982), Jean Edwards
Social/Sex Education, Thomas Miller, MS
Social/Sex Education for Children and Youth With Visual Impairments, Thomas Miller, MS
(This website features many articles on how to talk to children and teens with disabilities on topics ranging from menstruation to contraception)
(Family Planning Victoria advised that for teaching students with disabilities, the trick is to simplify. Visual sources of information are useful and their organization purchases anatomically correct dolls from the site above to assist in their sex education programs)
(“Kylie’s Private World” and “Jason’s Private World” are available from Life Support Productions in the UK and serve as good visuals to teach students with disabilities)