Sex Education for Special Needs Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Teaching students with special needs about sex does not have to be awkward, and it is very important! This lesson discusses special education in relation to students with diverse special needs.

Sex and Special Education

For the last few years, Barry has been teaching special education in a self contained elementary school setting. This year, he has moved to a high school, and he is excited to be working with an older group of students.

One of the things Barry is intimidated by, however, is the district-wide mandate that he incorporates sex education into his curriculum. Barry knows that it is important for students with special needs to learn about sex, bodies, and development. At the same time, he feels a bit uncertain about the best way to approach this topic.

Barry knows that it is normal for teachers to feel some conflicts about sex education, and in fact, many parents of students with special needs still see their children as too young to learn about sex. Yet Barry understands that it is his responsibility to teach his students what they need to know to feel safe and comfortable in their bodies and in relationships.

Knowing Your Students, Knowing Their Needs

First of all, Barry remembers that no two students with special needs are exactly alike. His students have different strengths and struggles, and their special needs manifest in different ways.

When Barry plans his approach to sex education, he thinks about his students and their different needs. Some of the issues he considers, for instance, are as follows:

  • His students with autism really struggle with social cues and thus, will need extra education about reading body language and what it means to get consent from someone else in a sexual situation.
  • His students with mental retardation are at especially high risk for being taken advantage of and will benefit from learning self-defense as part of their sex education.
  • His students with physical disabilities and medical vulnerabilities may need to learn about extra precautions they need to take in order to keep their bodies safe.

Barry thinks carefully about each of his students, their strengths as learners, and their areas of challenge and discomfort as he plans his curriculum.

Starting with Good Language

Next, Barry thinks about the kind of language he will use when teaching sex education to his students. He knows that many of his students have only been exposed to euphemisms and even infantile language for describing body parts and processes.

Barry thinks of his students as whole and complex people who deserve access to clear and scientific language for describing their bodies and sexuality. Though he knows it can be uncomfortable, he devotes lessons to vocabulary for sexual language, including anatomy as well as processes related to puberty and words for describing human relationships.

Barry uses images and diagrams to supplement his vocabulary teaching, thus appealing to the visual learners in his class and helping his students remember and increase their comfort with new terminology.

Safety and Health

Barry knows that safety and health are always an important part of sex education, and his students are often even more vulnerable to unsafe sexual encounters. A major part of his curriculum is around teaching his students what their rights are and how to say no to touch they do not want.

He also explicitly discusses their responsibilities for keeping other people safe, using social stories and scripts to discuss consent and mutual respect.

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