Sexual Education for Children with Disabilities

The topic of sexual education can be uncomfortable for parents to broach with their children or educators to discuss with their students. However, teaching sexual education is important to your child’s development, particularly if your child has exceptionalities. In this article, we’ll answer a few frequently asked questions about sexual education for children with disabilities.

Does a child with disabilities really need sex education?

Yes! Every child, no matter how significant their needs, requires and deserves access to developmentally appropriate and accurate sexual education. Sexual education encompasses more than sexual pleasure. It teaches body awareness, development, consent, choice, relationships, dignity, sexual health, and behavior.

If we as parents and educators don’t provide students with information and tools to navigate what is happening in their bodies, they will become confused, vulnerable, lonely, and at risk of victimization.

How do I start a conversation with my child about their body?

Humans are born curious about their bodies. Rather than wait until adolescence to begin talking about body parts, start early! Children as young as toddlers explore their bodies and yours as they try to make sense of the world around them. There are plenty of naturalistic opportunities to discuss body parts as well as explicit teaching strategies to get you started.

Think about the language.
How does your child communicate to you? How does he or she receive information from others? You want to ensure that you start teaching your child in a way that makes sense to them and meets their level of need.

Be concrete.
Concepts of love, privacy, and romance are quite abstract. Start with concrete examples and simple discriminations. For example, “You wear pants and shirts to cover your private parts. Those are parts that only you can touch.”

How do I teach my child with special needs about body parts?

Understanding of body parts serves as the foundation of sexual education for children with disabilities. You can teach this by using a picture representation, modeling on yourself, visual picture cards, dolls, or whatever works best for your child based on the two considerations noted above (1. Think about the language and 2. Be concrete). You may want to use a combination of these teaching methods.

You can ask your child to “Point to the doll’s head” or ask, “What is this called?” when pointing to your own body. Determine what body parts your child knows. Ensure that your child can both receptively and expressively identify body parts as this will facilitate body autonomy and reduce the risk of victimization.

Many times, parents feel uncomfortable identifying private parts. Toileting is an ideal time to teach your child and name genitalia. You can say, “I’m going to wipe your vagina now.” or “You have to pee. Pee comes from your penis.”

Getting dressed is another great opportunity to name body parts and reinforce this with your child. Give your child an opportunity to fill in the blank. For example, you can say, “Your shirt goes over your (fill in the blank), these holes are for your (fill in the blank), and it covers your chest, breasts, and stomach.”

When naming parts, use anatomical names rather than cutesy kid names or slang. While this may feel awkward at first, there is nothing wrong or shameful in kids learning the correct name for their body parts. Additionally, knowing and naming the correct body parts can reduce confusion if your child needs help or would need to report an assault. Every person understands “vagina”, not everyone understands what “my faa faa” means.

Providing language will empower your child and help them become safer and more independent – crucial elements for sexual education and expression for children with disabilities.

Dr. Rachel Schwartz, BCBA-D is an Educational Consultant at the Watson Institute. She received her Master’s Degree in Teaching and Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of Georgia and her Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Schwartz has worked internationally creating supervising programs for individuals with developmental disabilities and conducts research on the importance of sexual education and expression for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.