How to teach special needs children about Sex Education?

Definition:

First, we would like to explicitly state the definition of Sex Education with special needs children:
It means educating children with special needs about human sexual anatomy, sexual activity, physiological changes due to puberty, safe and unsafe touch and acts of sexual exploitation.

Here we will address the question of why is sex education important for special needs children. We will also look at what considerations are to be made with respect to the child’s disability and what do we actually need to teach children about.

Case Study:

Parents of a 12 year old girl with Autism felt the need to educate their daughter about her privy parts and the bodily changes that accompany puberty. They however decided to not use the scientific terms like ‘vagina’ or ‘sex organs’ and use metaphorical words instead. They thought this was a good idea considering her subnormal IQ and her Autistic condition. So they used ‘ your flower’ instead of ‘vagina’ and explained to her about menstruation and also about safe and unsafe touch.

All went well until one day, suddenly, the girl seemed to act differently after school. Otherwise a calm, organised young girl, she was very anxious and restless. On being asked, she told the mother ‘He touched my flowers’ and kept repeating it. The mother, at that point, couldn’t connect the dots and thought it may be something related to a plantation project they had at school. She told the daughter that it is okay and that she should share her materials with her friends.

Day in and day out, the girl kept repeating ‘He touched my flowers’. Her academic performance dropped significantly. She did not talk much, could not sleep, could not eat properly. She refused to let anyone even come close to her, let alone touch her. After about a week, the parents started to worry. On investigating, they found out that the girl was being physically molested by the lift man.

Why Sex Education is important for special needs children?

1. Keeping them Informed

In the developmental process of growing up, children transition to adolescent life. ( Duh! What a factual statement! ) Special needs children are no different in this case. Sex education is important for children in general because girls and boys need to have an understanding of the physiological changes they’ll be undergoing.

Tell them what are their private parts, to start with.

For girls, private parts are their breasts, genital organs and even their lips. The semi private part could be their face, neck, waist, stomach. The not-so-private parts could be limbs.
For boys, private parts are their genital areas and lips. Semi private parts are their neck, chest, waist, stomach and face. The not-so-private parts could are the limbs.

Private parts (Girls)
Next, tell them what will be changing as they grow up.

Girls need to be told that they will soon be getting their menstrual cycles. They need to be educated about how to use a sanitary napkin and practice menstrual hygiene. Likewise about what will happen if they don’t do that. Also, tell them about the changes in their body size, shape. Familiarize them with pimples they might get, about hair growth etc.

Puberty related changes in Girls
Explaining menstruation

Young boys need to be educated about changes in their sex organs. They must be aware of terms like pubic hair, erection, ejaculation, masturbation etc. Also teach the boys about hair growth, changes in their voice and their body size. It is important to set the giggles aside and teach children the science behind all of these changes their body will be taking them through.

Visual chart explaining puberty related changes in boys
Puberty related changes in Boys
Normalizing private parts

Special needs boys and girls also should be told about these changes beforehand. Of course, their condition, their IQ, their age will all affect how they respond to it. They may or may not understand the scientific part of it. But introducing them to the facts of sex education in the way they understand will help.

2. Ensuring their Safety

The purpose of making them aware of their bodily changes is not solely why Sex education is important for special needs. As parents/ caregivers/ teachers, it is not a good idea for us to ignore the fact that these children are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Educating the child about safe and unsafe touch, about his/her private parts, about what should they do if they feel uncomfortable with anybody goes a long way in keeping the kids safe.

3. Teaching healthy, hygienic habits

Lets get this straight – your young child, special needs or otherwise, will learn about sexual activity and sex organs. If not from you, they’ll hear these terms in their classrooms, from their friends, in their books. So isn’t it a safer bet to have them learn about ‘growing up’ from their best mentor, you ?

The point we’re trying to make is, when peers talk among themselves, they exchange misleading information. Information they’ve probably seen on the internet or heard from someone else. Which is fallible, most of the times. This is why we believe, you should brush away the awkwardness and give your child / student all the age appropriate tidings.

To your little girl,

Teach her how and why to use a sanitary napkin during periods. Teach her about the healthy ways to deal with menstrual pain, PMS, increasing bust size and even pimples for that matter.
No, you need not tell her about the whole process of childbirth right away. Do not overwhelm them.

Explaining the use of a sanitary pad
To your little boy,

You should tell him how to clean up pubic hair / beard. Also that it is natural to have a wet dream sometimes. Or wake up to an erection. It is a proven fact that these are simply because of the hormonal changes during puberty. As quirky as it may sound, it is also vital to tell your boy that masturbation is healthy up to a certain limit.

Masturbation

What should be considered first?

How you introduce special needs children to this topic will impact how they respond to it. Some may get curious and bombard you with questions. To some, you may have to lay things out as rules to be followed. Others will be smart enough to go on and do their own research on it.
Their specific concern and their mode of learning has to be highlighted when planning a sex education session for special needs kids. Some of them may have a co-morbid Echolalia. So whatever you tell them, they’ll keep repeating those words out aloud. They may become fixated if the materials used are too loud for them.

Before teaching a crucial yet sensitive topic like sex education to special needs children, keep in mind these few important things:

1. Child’s vocabulary –

Adapting to their limited vocabulary. Modify the to-be-conveyed information in their language’.

2. Child’s mental age and comprehension skills

Not overwhelming the child but only telling as much as the child seems capable of comprehending constructively.

3. Managing related behavioral / academic / social concerns

Say for example – their pre-existing sensory needs, understanding of personal space etc.

4. Modifying materials to suit their preferred mode of learning –

Visual charts for visual learners, oral instructions for auditory learners etc.

What to teach and how?

1. HUMAN ANATOMY

Naming body parts:

The first thing to do is to teach kids age-adequate names of their sex organs. For children aged 3 to 9 years, using ‘private parts’ is preferred. But as they grow up (for 10 years and above), transition to saying ‘Penis’ and ‘Vagina’.

Note: It is recommended you refrain from using any nicknames / funny names for sex organs. Strive to normalize the human anatomy for your children. Simultaneously, one can train them to not use the names repetitively in social settings. You can label it by saying “ Voice volume should be at level 1”

Difference in boys vs girls genitals:

To children who are 12 years and older, one could teach them the difference between the bodily structure of boys and girls. The use of appropriate defining charts will help. Along with, you can teach them what is the acceptable way of behaving with a friend of the opposite sex. Again, visuals depicting what are the areas where you can touch the other person and where you cannot can be used.
These lessons given so early will go far to make them understanding, respecting young adults.

Talk about appropriateness of self stimulating behaviors

Growth is accompanied by changed sensational needs in both boys and girls. Their need for self stimulation will rise as they sexually mature. This pleasure seeking tendency is also found in kids between 3 to 9 years of age. As a parent /  teacher of a special needs child, you need to accept this fact first. It is only human and a natural part of attaining puberty. When teaching Sex education to a special needs kid, you will have to step up and teach the child how and where is it acceptable to touch oneself. By doing this, you are not encouraging the child to masturbate. You are only teaching him / her socially acceptable ways of behaving. (Which is the ultimate dream goal of most)

You may say, “If you feel like touching your private area, you should only do it in your room.” and show them a visual chart like the one below.

Visual chart of a boy saying " If I feel like touching myself, I must do it in my room with the door closed."

Having said that, if your child sometimes locks himself in his room and says, “I’m doing something private”, do not panic and keep banging the door. Remember we don’t want to traumatize the child by making this a big deal or shaming him/her. Have your way to know what s(he) is actually doing so they don’t get into trouble. Also teach them how often is it okay to self stimulate.

Preparing for emotional, psychological changes too

The motive of Sex Education is to prepare the child for puberty. Physiological changes is not all that they will be facing. We need to also brace our special needs children for emotional and psychological changes as well. These hormonal variations will often manifest themself in behavioral difficulties.

This is the time when you start to follow your child instead of them following you. Give your young kid the space s(he) will be needing. Give them the autonomy to decide things for themselves. Being too authoritative and controlling will often backfire. Teach them constructive ways of dealing with aggression they might feel. Teach them how to manage the emotional ebb and flow. Give them the freedom to explore their bodies. But of course in a guided and socially appropriate manner.

2. Personal Space

Special needs kids often lack an understanding of personal space. Some have a tendency to stand too close, or randomly hug or place a peck on people’s cheeks. This springs out of their sensory needs or the need to feel loved. Sure, it’s cute to have a child like you. But regulate this need as they grow older. Most do not know how tight to hug or whom to hug and when.
This is why we need to tutor our growing children about personal space.

First, introduce them to the concept.

You may say, “There is a bubble around every person that you should not pop”. Explain what will happen if they go into the bubble and stand too close to someone. By showing an intermediate spacing chart, you may explain who falls in the closest circle and what is appropriate with them. For example, My family is the closest to me so it is okay to hug my family. My friends are in the outer circle so it is only okay to shake hands with them.

With Shadow teachers or teachers at school:

Children tend to get comfortable with their teachers after a while. They feel like their teachers also fall in their inner circle. So it is okay to hug them as they please. Using the chart, we can explain kids the boundaries they should maintain with the teachers. Tell them, “At school, if you want to hug the teacher, ask for their permission. You can hug only if the teacher says yes.” As teachers, you can reward them every time they ask you. Also, simultaneously teach them to accept rejection.“ If the teacher says no, means no hugging the teacher or anyone else.”

With friends and other children at school/ colony::

We can tell the child that s(he) can only handshake and high five other children around. A gentle hug is also okay but again, only with their permission.

With family members:

Being the most attached to the child, parents and siblings often feel it is fine if their special needs child hugs them whenever. We are not restricting your love here. It is better to have them take permissions even at home, since they’re doing the same outside home. This will avoid a lot of confusion in the initial learning phase.

With older adults of the same or opposite gender:

It is extremely important to tell the child that s(he) should not hug or get closer (in space) to stranger adults. The same applies to the kid’s aunts and uncles. At the same time, tell the child, “If someone you don’t know hugs you or touches you, you should tell mommy/ daddy immediately.” This is crucial to ensure the child’s safety.

3. Safe and Unsafe touch:

Note: Teach children as young as 3 years old about safe and unsafe touches.

Use ‘Safe and Unsafe’ instead of ‘Good and Bad’ touch

First things first, transition from saying ‘good and bad touch’ to ‘safe and unsafe touch’. Reason being that, to an adulting child, a bad touch might feel good. Girls and boys may find it satisfying when touched in the vagina or penis due to their sexual maturity and sensory pleasure. God forbid, but the aunt or uncle who is actually molesting the child may then become his/her favorite aunt/ uncle.
Special needs boys and girls, especially those who are non verbal, have to know what to do when someone touches them inappropriately.

Sexual predators always play it safe. They will first lure the child will chocolates or something desirable and pretend to be the child’s best friend. They’ll ask the kid to keep a secret and then act upon their intentions. Some also threaten them by saying “If you tell this to anybody I will not give you chocolates / hit you.”

Who is allowed to touch me?

Tell the child very clearly who is allowed to touch him/her. NO ONE, not even parents, should touch the child’s genitals. Teach your child that anybody touching their private or semi private parts is wrong. In addition, tell them that if someone does that, they need to immediately inform you, or their teachers. Train the child to yell out a loud “NO” in such situations. Tell them to keep telling others about what happened to them until someone takes an action.

Keep a check..

As caretakers / parents / teachers, regularly keep a check of any suspicious bruises on the child’s body. Bruises kids get while playing will be very different from marks of force. If you see a blue- purple spots or red marks on the child, inquire and take immediate action. If teachers suspect abuse, the first right thing is to inform the parents about the same.

A sexual predator is seldom a stranger

To parents of special needs children, we’d suggest keeping a detailed record of everyone who comes in contact with the child. A sexual predator is seldom a stranger. They are usually among the people who know the child and who the child is familiar with. A diary of contact and address details of all the neighbors, milkman, newspaper boy, watchman, extended family members who visit frequently, parents of the child’s friends etc. will come handy. An additional boon – Tell those in the diary that their details are being recorded.

Books that can be suggested to the child to read

Just for Boys by Matt Crossick
Just for Girls by Matt Crossick

It talks about puberty, personal space, attraction, body and emotional changes.

Here in India,

We understand that most Indian parents are restrictive about sex education, self stimulation, or any sort of sexual talk with children. But somewhere, it becomes important for us to understand the needs of our growing child. Also, to ensure they do not become victims of abuse, we have to safeguard them by teaching all of these. Educate yourself about these natural process first and pass on the learning to your children. Normalize human sexual development and growth and encourage constructive talk at home.

After all, what do we aim for our special needs kids – them becoming independent and fuller functioning adults. And what, other than positive learning, is a better way to reach there!  

We, at Starlit, provide psychology related services to children with various special needs. To know more about what we provide, visit www.starlitservises.com

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