Sex and Your Child with a Disability
All children need to learn about their own bodies and how they work. They also need to learn about the rules of the society they live in, so that they know what is expected of them and what is acceptable and unacceptable. Learning about the sex organs is obviously part of the first point; appropriate behaviour and ways of relating to others is part of the second. Children with disabilities need to learn these things just as their brothers and sisters do.
Disability does not rule out sexual feelings, sexual needs or usually, sexual capabilities. (However some disabilities do affect sexual performance and where this applies the youngster needs to be prepared for this and to learn about alternative sexual activities). All young people need to be prepared for changes in their bodies that take place at puberty, for the changes which will take place in their feelings and for the different expectations of behaviour that they will meet.
Parents sometimes feel that they should not give their disabled son or daughter information about sex, but to attempt to deny young people sexual knowledge is fruitless and irresponsible:-
- Sexuality is not an optional extra. Everyone, from the most severely handicapped to the most capable among us has sexual needs, feelings and drives. To attempt to deny this in people with disabilities by withholding sex education is to do them a major dis-service and is ultimately an attempt to deny their prospective adulthood.
- Not giving any formal or planned sex education does not, in any case, mean that no learning takes place. Learning about sexuality is a life-long and often haphazard process. Babies learn from birth onwards about the bodily pleasure of being warm, being cuddled, being tickled and interacted with. We learn from watching the ways in which our parents show affection to each other; we learn from spoken and unspoken messages about private parts; also from films, advertisements, and soap operas on TV. Sadly, it is often the case that youngsters with disabilities only get a very negative form of sex education - "Don't do that, it's not nice", "Stop touching yourself down there, that is bad!"
- Ignorance is not bliss. Not understanding the changes and developments of your body can be very frightening and bewildering. Not knowing how to behave or the consequences of sexual activity, not knowing the difference between public and private behaviour, not knowing you 'own' your body and can say "no" to touches you do not like, leaves youngsters with disabilities very vulnerable to getting into trouble, to abuse or exploitation. Proper sex education is therefore a particularly important factor in helping people protect themselves from abuse.
Children with a disability grow up. Although puberty may be slightly delayed for some, or be early for others, they go through exactly the same process as any other child. Voices start to break, body hair starts to grow, girls begin their periods, boys start to have wet dreams, mood swings become more extreme. All that is the biological process of puberty which cannot be stopped, even if sometimes parents would want it to! However, adolescence is a social process whereby the youngster develops a personal understanding of his or her adult social and sexual identity. Frequently we deny that period of adolescence and then adult status to people with a disability. We cannot stop their physical maturity, but often with the best of intentions, we stop or curtail their socio-sexual development. The result is a person who is physically an adult, but who has the social status of a child. Adults with a disability rightly resent this.
Children explore their own bodies and learn that handling some parts gives a particularly pleasant feeling. Masturbation is a very common human behaviour and is certainly not harmful. Every child, however, has to learn that Masturbation in public is not acceptable and some children may need particular teaching and guidance to ensure that this private activity is confined to a private place. This means, of course, that privacy must be available.
As puberty approaches you need to prepare yourselves and your son or daughter for a more adult status in the family and outside it. You should assume that your son/daughter will have as independent an adult life as possible, and that this will almost certainly include sexual desires and sexual behaviour. A young man or woman with a disability will have just as much need for friendship, romance and the exploration of his or her sexuality and adult role as any other young person of a similar age.
The child with a disability needs what all children need: access to sex education, privacy for private activities and a social life with children or young people of a similar age. In addition young people with particular disabilities which affect the functioning of their lower bodies or urino-genital systems may need particular help and specialist information on ways in which they can take part in sexual activities.
You may wish to talk to a teacher at your child's school about their sex education programme. If you feel that you need help, support or more specific information contact SPOD where we will be pleased to provide or arrange for the advice/assistance you need.
Any questions on personal issues like these can be asked on our Sex and Disability Helpline:
Post: Tuppy Owens, BCM Box Lovely, London WC1N 3XX
Email: Email Helpline
Phone: 07770 884 985 : The Helpline is open weekdays 11am to 7pm