Health Click produces resources for young people and those with disabilities, and for their parents, educators, therapists and care givers.

Let’s talk about Sex
February 24, 2015

Annette Milligan discusses the importance of sexuality education for those with Special Needs.



Everyone who works with children and young people with learning/intellectual disabilities understands the challenges of teaching sexuality education to their students. Despite being flooded with highly sexualized images daily, many, if not most people, find it incredibly difficult to articulate the information needed by our students, in a way they can understand. The problems are significant, as we found when producing resources: lack of common language even for body parts, decisions about what to teach, how, at what age and stage…the list goes on.


The sexuality education requirements of Special Needs students are higher than those of the neuro-typical students who will, in the worst possible scenario, at least gain much information which is passed on by innuendo through conversations and media. For Special Needs students, these options are not going to work, and lead only to their already increased vulnerability. The research is simply, horrifying. When I worked for CCS in the early ‘90s, the estimates of sexual abuse inflicted on those with disabilities was in the order of 80–85 per cent. That figure has increased to 85–90 per cent, with some studies indicating levels of abuse of up to 89 per cent of people with intellectual disabilities. It isn’t hard to mount an argument that says these young people need good sexuality education more than any other group of students because their risk of abuse is so high.


Apart from the misery of sexual abuse, there is another concern: sexual abusers have almost always been abused. Rehabilitating a neuro-typical adult after sexual abuse is challenging. For someone with an intellectual disability, the potential for future non-offending is much, much more difficult to achieve. Better to prevent the abuse in the first place. Education has shown to help prevent abuse.



On the other side, sexuality education isn’t just about preventing sexual abuse – it’s about providing information so that young people can make informed choices in their sexual lives. It’s 2015, and no longer novel to see couples with learning difficulties wanting to have intimate relationships.


The problems can be simply fixed:

  • Be up for the challenge: Start by recognising that your students really do need this education – it cannot be an optional extra.
  • Use the proper words for body parts: There are so many slang words for body parts, and your students might only be able to learn one. Consistency is key for their learning.
  • Use clear, precise language: Here’s one misunderstanding: a young couple in their early 20s, both with Special Needs, living in the same house, said they wanted to start “sleeping together”. The care-givers rightfully wanted to establish that neither was being coerced, and were preparing to talk about contraception. After a lot of discussion, it turned out that when they heard the term “sleeping together”, they thought it meant they would sleep in the same beds, PJs on, and that being intimate was a quick kiss. When the caregiver explained what sexual intercourse was, they were both horrified, and wanted no part of that! A simple term, totally, and understandably, misunderstood.

    reading-book reading-book2


    Masturbation is another area which some teachers struggle with. I have worked with teachers who have had several young people masturbating several times a day in the classroom. Not only is it disruptive, if that behaviour is not modified, that person will come to the attention of the Police. Even not observing social mores, such as running up and kissing other students in the playground, will create issues. Teaching the basics of asking before hugging/kissing, teaching how to say ‘no’ and ‘yes’, teaching what is private and what is not are vital parts of this education.


    Beware of the trap of making exceptions because the person has Special Needs. The 16 year young man who has been able to take his clothes off and run around naked because there are so many other things to battle, this one could slide…. If it’s going to be unacceptable when he’s 30, it’s unacceptable now. Have agreed standards of behaviour between all the school team and the family so that there is consistency. A failure to moderate this behaviour will make it very limiting for him to have social integration later. Keep the long-term interests of your students top of mind.


    Where to get help: There are resources available at IHC (, Family Planning Association: ( and Health Click ( for the “Me” resources designed for those with learning disabilities.


    Annette Milligan is the director of Health Click. She is a trained secondary teacher and sexual health nurse/educator with 26 years’ experience in the sector.


    EDR 2015 - Lets talk about sex

    Published: February 2015
    Source: NZ teachers 2015

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