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Love, Sex and Disability


Young people today are capable of sexual reproduction years before they become psychologically and socially ready to function as parents and adults in our society. For children with developmental disabilities the gap between biological reality and social maturity presents some additional challenges.

In typical children, in fact, the gap between sexual maturity and emotional and social maturity continues to widen as our society grows more complex. The National Institutes of Health sets the norm for female sexual maturity between 10 and 14 years of age.

Sexuality is a universal human trait that encompasses more than sexual intercourse or sexual activity. It is who we are as girls and boys (women and men), how we view or bodies and how we grow and change over the time. It includes gender, appearance, relationships, sexual communication, family values and life choices.

Teenagers with developmental disabilities experience the same desires, urges and needs as their typical peers. The physical and sexual developmental stages will follow the same pattern (some at a faster or slower rate) regardless of if your child has a disability or not. It’s an evolutionary process. People with intellectual disabilities want to have a relationship that includes sexual expression.

Children with developmental disabilities and their parents often confront misconceptions and stereotypes concerning sexuality. People with developmental disabilities are not asexual, oversexed or sexually impulsive. Sexual maturity for the developmentally disabled may be seen as a “problem” rather than a positive milestone of human development. For adolescents with developmental disabilities, puberty need not be perceived as a potential threat to future success and independence.

Knowledge is power. Teaching children about sexuality does not lead to early sexual experimentation and promiscuity. Teaching all children about sexuality is an important component of parenting and education. Comprehensive sexuality education is a lifelong process that should include not only facts about sex and biology, but also about managing a relationship, making responsible choices and distinguishing right from wrong. It
should address the consequences of sexual activity, including pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Compre-hensive sexuality education can help people with disabilities avoid social mistakes and inappropriate behaviors.

Children with disabilities are at a much greater risk of being sexually abused than their typical peers, according to the Arc, a nonprofit that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Any time there is an inequity of power, there is the potential for abuse. People with intellectual disabilities may be seen as easy “targets” who have a hard time recognizing and reporting abuse.

Some individuals have caregivers who foster dependency and isolation. Knowledge can help reduce exploitation and increase the ability to report incidents of suspected sexual abuse. Sexuality education empowers individuals. Knowing the appropriate naming of body parts, distinguishing between good touch, bad touch, secret touching and in some cases the necessity of “caretaking touching” helps a child or adolescent become less vulnerable. Parents of developmentally disabled young people find it helpful to remain aware of their social lives beyond adolescence and into adulthood.

There are many regional and national organizations that can act as a resource for parents with developmental disabilities. These organizations can provide quality resource materials to help with comprehensive sexuality education. Arise and Exceptional Family Resources are two local organizations. There are also regional offices of many of the national organizations including the Arc of Onondaga (see sidebar).

Parents can make a difference. Teaching your child about sexuality can serve to enhance your relationship. Parents as sexual beings bring personal knowledge and experience concerning sexuality. As a parent, you may know best what works well for your child when it comes to teaching this important life process.            

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.


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