Sexual Education Strategies for Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

Helping adults with developmental disabilities learn about sex, sexuality and consent is really important to their development. This lesson discusses some strategies that work with this special population.

Why Sexual Education Matters

Talia has been teaching sex education at a community center for many years. Her courses focus on an audience of adults with developmental disabilities, which are disabilities that affect cognition and social skills and might include autism spectrum disorder and mental retardation.

Sometimes, people ask Talia why she does the work she does, and Talia explains that she believes healthy sexuality is a key part of personhood and identity for any individual. Some people think that it's too hard to work on sexuality issues with people with disabilities, but Talia knows it's important to resist this stereotype.

The Importance of Being Straightforward

One thing that Talia knows is crucial to her work is the importance of being straightforward with her students and others who might care for them. In other words, she speaks in a clear, matter-of-fact way, listens to students carefully, and answers their questions honestly.

Addressing Your Discomfort

Talia knows that part of a straightforward attitude has to do with addressing her own discomfort. When she started this work, she was uncomfortable talking about sexual pleasure and orgasm, and she focused only on the potentially dangerous aspects of sexuality. By talking over this discomfort with a therapist and some supportive friends, Talia was able to work through it. Now, she is more able to acknowledge her own challenges but still talk to her students in a multidimensional way about sexuality.

Teaching Vocabulary

Talia thinks that for many adults with disabilities, it's important to start by getting on the same page about vocabulary. She teaches them the words they need to know to describe their body parts and to ask questions about different aspects of sex. Talia avoids euphemisms with her students and gives them plenty of practice using vocabulary in context. At the same time, she explains to them carefully that some sexual language is not comfortable to use in public or at the workplace and explicitly teaches them where it is and is not appropriate to talk about sexuality.

Visual Aids

Many people with developmental disabilities are visual learners, meaning they benefit from working with images and sometimes models. Though it can feel challenging, Talia shows her students diagrams to help them learn words for body parts and incorporates photos and graphics to the role plays and scenarios they discuss together.

Role Plays and Social Stories

For many of Talia's students, learning the socially-appropriate behaviors involved in sexual situations is a serious challenge. Talia knows that working with role plays and social stories can make a big difference for these students.

Social stories are excerpts of scripted language told from the perspective of a hypothetical student in a specific context. Talia prepares social stories about the following topics:

  • having crushes
  • asking questions about sex
  • staying safe during sex
  • saying no when you do not want something
  • respecting other people's boundaries

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