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Sexuality Meets Intellectual Disability: What Every Parent Should Know

by Leslie Walker-Hirsch

The word "sexuality" is an emotionally-loaded one! The word "disability" is also. What happens when they are combined?

Many people want to equate sexuality education with permission to be sexually active. This is not so!! Sexuality education is the opportunity to learn, understand, and practice what it means to be either a man or woman in the culture and time in which we are living. And it's an opportunity to receive instruction about how to live happily, safely, and responsibly as an adult.

In the bad old days, sexuality and disability were rarely paired together in polite discussion. The view was that it was not acceptable to discuss sexuality openly. And people with disabilities were frequently hidden away and not mentioned either. Since that time, we have learned much about the benefit of talking about sexuality, and much has changed about how people with a disability are perceived.

Parents no longer ask, "How can I stop sexuality from developing in my child with an intellectual disability?" Instead we are asking, "How can I help my child with an intellectual disability express sexuality in a way that is consistent with his or her ability and within the standards of the community in which we live?" A much better question!!


Social/Sexual Development

Sexuality is an inherent and important aspect of everyone's personality and is not tied to IQ. However, there are both similarities and differences between how typical children's sexuality develops and how sexuality develops among children with intellectual disabilities.

Physical development of children both with and without an intellectual disability is quite similar, with puberty likely to occur earlier than in past generations for both groups. Although the biological maturity of young people with an intellectual disability is likely to keep pace with that of typical children, the social, emotional, intellectual and experiential maturity is most likely to lag behind that of typical children. The implication of this situation is that there is now a greater than ever disparity between biological age and social, emotional, intellectual and experiential age for children with intellectual disabilities. Children with intellectual disabilities are being asked at a younger age to respond socially and emotionally to a physical body that is likely to be much more developed than the rest of their abilities. Additionally, these same young people are included with same chronological-aged children in schools and social activities. They are expected to cope and behave as appropriately as their same-age peers without disabilities. When that does not happen, schools and families get together to figure out what to do, but are often at a loss: Everyone wants to include the child with an intellectual disability, but also wants that child to be protected from making serious errors related to sexuality, and from being victimized by others who may try to take advantage of the child's sexual vulnerability.

Colleges and universities typically do not include sexuality education of children and teens with intellectual disabilities in the required preparation of special education teachers, or social workers and psychologists either for that matter. While special education teachers are well-versed in the aspects of addressing the unique learning styles of their students and the variety of teaching methods that have proven successful, they are not equipped, not comfortable, and often not permitted by their school boards to provide sexuality education to their students. Health education teachers are charged with providing sexuality education to their typical students and are well prepared to do that successfully, but they are not skilled at using the special education teaching strategies to teach students who learn differently. Consequently, there is a gap into which many students fall.

Sexuality education for school-aged children with intellectual disabilities is an important aspect of their social education that can get overlooked in lieu of academic skills. What would constitute a meaningful sexuality education for this group of children and teens? They need similar information to that of typically- developing peers, but the emphasis and teaching strategies need to be different. The "soft skills" and the development of social judgment ought to be a higher priority than reproductive system information. The opportunity for repetition of concepts and rehearsal of the associated behaviors needs to be built into a safe, judgment-free environment where they can effectively practice social, interactive and relationship skills.


Six Key Components of Meaningful Sexuality Education

Social and sexuality education must successfully address each of the following six key components, using teaching strategies that are age and ability appropriate. It must stress the learning strengths of the child and provide opportunity for repetition and practice of the social skills needed for success. The six components are as follows:


Parents' Roles

What can a parent do to assure that this kind of meaningful sexuality education is offered to their child? The following are some suggested actions:



When sexuality education is provided to children and teens with intellectual disabilities in a way that they can understand and use, their teachers and families have reported improved social behavior and expect they will be safer from sexual ridicule and exploitation. When planning for a child's educational and social future, it is crucial to include meaningful sexuality education.

Leslie Walker-Hirsch is a Social Development and Sexuality Consultant based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She may be reached at 505/995 9928 or 914/953 8027;; or at She is editor of "The Facts of Life...and More: Sexuality and Intimacy for People with Intellectual Disabilities" (Brookes, 2007).


Top 10 Reasons Why Age-Appropriate, Meaningful Sexuality Education is Important
for Youth and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities
10 People with an intellectual disability need to have the same information that everyone else has.
9 People with an intellectual disability, but without sexuality education, are at a disadvantage in the workplace, in school and in their community.
8 People with an intellectual disability are safer from sexual abuse if they have training in recognizing and reporting sexual encroachment.
7 Even if a person is delayed intellectually, the person's body, emotions and spirit are probably NOT delayed.
6 Sexuality education overcomes fears by replacing frightening urban legends with accurate factual information.
5 Sexuality education adds to the quality of a person's life. It is the cornerstone for successful community employment, mutual relationships and independent community living.
4 EVERYONE grows older, but it is more important to GROW UP!! And isn't that what we really want young people to do?
3 Sexuality education should not only come from Ms. Lola on the XXX site on the Internet or from Hustler magazine.
2 We live in a sexualized world, whether it is TV, movies, advertisements, the mall, the supermarket… and even Disney!!! Yet parents are the first and most important influence upon their child's social and sexual development.
1 And the #1 most important reason why people with an intellectual disability need sexuality education is because: SEXUALITY IS A NORMAL, EXPECTED AND JOYFUL PART OF OUR CULTURE AND OUR HUMANITY AND OUR LIVES.
2010 Leslie Walker-Hirsch. All rights reserved. Reprinted only with author's permission.



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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Fager, S., Hancox, D., Ely, C., Stenhjem, P., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2010). Impact: Feature Issue on Sexuality and People with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities, 23(2). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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