Sexual education is important for children as they approach adolescence, especially for individuals with disabilities since they are at a greater risk of victimization . There are numerous topics covered by the umbrella term, “sexual education”; it encompasses body awareness, development, consent, dating, relationships, dignity, sexual health, and sexual behaviors.
One of these topics, masturbation, can be uncomfortable for parents and educators to discuss with their children or students. No adolescent, no matter their level of support needs, has immunity from the raging hormones of the teenage years. In this article, learn how to talk with your child about masturbation and read about preventative and proactive strategies to redirect masturbation in inappropriate places. These tips are appropriate for educators as well as parents or caregivers of adolescents with special needs.
The gut reaction when you notice an adolescent or student masturbate in a public place is likely to try to get them to stop the behavior altogether. However, forbidding masturbation is likely to result in a worsening of the behavior or an increase in other interfering behaviors. Instead of focusing your attention on preventing your child or student from masturbating entirely, try to teach them where and when it is appropriate to do so. In other words, focus on the context, not the behavior.
Proactive Sexual Education Strategies
One of the most important and difficult concepts to teach in sexual education is privacy. The first part of an effective preventative strategy is providing a private location. This space should ideally be the individual’s bedroom, never in a public location such as at school. The goal is to make the bedroom, or whatever place is identified, an ideal, safe, and supportive place for your adolescent.
Next, consider using visual aides to designate the area as a private space. Sometimes a visual schedule assigning private time can prevent masturbation at other, inappropriate times of day. For example, setting the morning as an optional private time may eliminate the urge to masturbate when the student arrives at school. A student may require multiple scheduled private times at home (for example, before and directly after school) depending on their needs.
What if it doesn’t work?
In his book on “Sexuality Education”, Jason Travers (2018) cites prior research that suggests using periods of exercise to diminish arousal. If a student typically engages in masturbation during the afternoon and the behavior does not diminish with the inclusion of dedicated masturbation time(s), then consider including exercise during the afternoon schedule.
Options may include going for a walk, running on a treadmill, or going for a bike ride during the times of day the student typically tries to masturbate. This will keep the student engaged in an alternate activity and may reduce the internal desire to touch him/herself.
Get some data!
Sometimes students begin to touch themselves out of boredom. Collect data on what is typically occurring in the school day during the times of day the student tries to masturbate. Is it during free time? Is it during math? Is it during the bus ride to and from school? Ideally a pattern will emerge as to the times of day.
Now, analyze the activities going on during these times and gauge the student’s involvement. Is the student engaged? Does the activity have appropriate structure to promote inclusion and independence? You can begin to adjust the activity based on your data by adding in additional supports or materials.
Compete with highly preferred items or activities.
You may also consider incorporating highly preferred items during these times of day. The desire to engage in the highly preferred activity may compete with the urge to touch oneself and assist in decreasing the likelihood that masturbation will occur.
Tip: Conduct a preference assessment and ensure that you have a rotation of highly engaging activities and preferred items. Preference assessments should be conducted weekly to ensure potentially potent reinforcers. In addition, consider making this period of time more social to provide fewer opportunities for private time.
The Watson Institute special education consultants provide additional resources for parents and educators, called Learning Tips. Sign-up for our Learning Tips e-newsletter for resources delivered straight to your email inbox!
 Schwartz and Robertson, 2019; Shapiro, 2018
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.