Reducing Risk: Supporting Young People with Disabilities

Family members and caregivers are often unsure how to understand, accept, and respond to sexuality development in children who have disabilities.[Adapted from Advocates for Youth Fact Sheet: Sex Education for Physically, Emotionally and Mentally Challenged Youth.] Fear and reluctance to talk about sexuality with children is common for many families, not just those with children who have disabilities.

They are afraid that:

  • Talking about sex will encourage sexual experimentation
  • They (parents or caregivers) don’t know enough to handle questions appropriately
  • Their children already know too much or too little

The fear that talking about sex because it may cause problems has to be addressed because all children need assistance from their parents and/or foster parents to develop life skills. Without important sexual health knowledge, young people may make unwise decisions and/or take unnecessary risks. 


We are all sexual beings from the day we are born. Sexuality is the exploration of ourselves - our physical bodies, our emotions, self-worth and image, and our interrelations with others. It is one of the most basic human instincts, and no matter what level our learning abilities, it is a natural part of being human to  have the desire to discover what our bodies are all about.

Sexuality Across the Lifespan

Common myths about people who live with disabilities:

  • They do not feel the desire to have sex.
  • They are child-like and dependent.
  • They are oversexed and unable to control their sexual urges.

These are myths and misunderstandings that cause people to refuse to acknowledge that all people have sexual feelings, needs and desires regardless of their physical and/or mental abilities. As adults, women with disabilities are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted.  Education about sex and sexuality at a young age can help protect vulnerable young people.

Myth: Young people with disabilities are not sexual.

Reality: All people—including young people—are sexual beings, regardless of whether or not they live with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. And, all people need affection, love and intimacy, acceptance, and companionship.

At the same time, children and youth who live with disabilities are a diverse group with unique and individual needs related to sex education. For example, children with developmental disabilities may learn more slowly than do their non-disabled peers; yet their physical development is happening at the same rate. They may need sex education that builds skills for appropriate language and behavior in public. In another example, paraplegic youth may need reassurance that they can have satisfying sexual relationships and practical guidance on how to do so.

Myth: People with developmental disabilities are childlike and dependent.

Reality: This stereotype arises from a belief that a disabled person is somehow unable to participate equally in an intimate relationship. Our collective social discomfort - both with sexuality and also with the sexuality of people who live with disabilities - make it easier to view anyone who lives with disabilities as an ‘eternal child.’  This stereotype ignores the need to acknowledge every young person’s sexuality and also denies her/his full humanity.

Myth: People with disabilities cannot control their sexuality.

Reality: This myth is related to the first two myths—if people with disabilities are neither asexual nor child-like, then perhaps they are ‘oversexed’ and have ‘uncontrollable urges’. Belief in this stereotype can result in a reluctance to provide sex education for youth with disabilities. Sex education and training are key to promoting healthy and mutually respectful behavior, regardless of the young person’s abilities.


Developing into healthy adolescence

For all children, sexual behaviors begin at or around birth. When children hit puberty, sexual feelings typically strengthen. At that point, many adolescents with developmental disabilities may wish to date or otherwise be in intimate relationships with other youths.

Caregivers are encouraged to educate themselves about the issues specific to their chid and to learn how to communicate the information of sex education with them.

  • Acknowledge that everyone, including your child, is sexual—and has sexuality related emotions and desires.
  • Before you start a conversation with your child, make sure you know your own values and beliefs. Be honest with yourself. Find support for yourself if you are struggling to make the leap from sexuality as dangerous to sexuality as a normal part of human development.
  • Be ready to assert your personal privacy boundaries. For example, say clearly, if asked, that you will not discuss your own private sexual behavior because it’s private.
  • Start talking with your children about sexuality while they are very young. Do not wait until they reach puberty (or later) for these conversations!
  • Use accurate language for body parts and bodily functions. Research shows that when a child has accurate language for private body parts, she/he is more likely to report abuse, if it occurs, than when the child lacks appropriate language.
  • Identify times to talk and communication strategies that work best for you and your child. For example, the best time might be Saturday morning on the way to a sports event or after school while you share a snack. Your best strategy might be to play word games. For someone else, other times and strategies might work best.
  • Avoid times and strategies that do not work well for your children and your situation. For example, you may be unable to carry on a coherent conversation while driving. Or word games may confuse your child.
  • Be clear when discussing relationships. For example, calling your spouse ‘Mommy’ or ‘Daddy’ can confuse a child and send confusing messages about family relationships and about sexuality; instead explain the relationship. “Your Mommy is my wife, so I call her Sarah, not Mommy.” Or you might say, “Your Uncle Leroy is my brother, like Jason is your brother. Leroy is your uncle, because he is my brother. When you have kids, Jason will be their uncle.”
  • Talk about all kinds of families and relationships, not just heterosexual relationships and nuclear families. Children and youth often know very early if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and your willingness to normalize different ways of being in the world will help them accept themselves and talk about their experiences and questions.
  • Use photos, pictures, and other visual materials as often as possible. Showing family photos may help your child to understand different types of families and relationships.
  • Use ‘teachable moments’ that arise in daily life. For example, talk about a neighbor’s new pregnancy or a friend’s upcoming marriage, divorce, move, operation, or retirement.
  • Be honest when your child asks questions. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Suggest “let’s find the answer together” and then do so.
  • Always acknowledge and value your child’s feelings and experience. Offer praise and support. Remember that minimizing how he/she feels is not a good way to build trust when talking about sensitive subjects. For example, “That’s a good question, and it is one I have had in the past, too.” Or, “I’m glad you feel happy when we talk. I feel happy, too.”
  • Be willing to repeat information over time. Don’t be impatient or expect your child to remember everything you said or to have entirely understood it.
  • Use all the reliable sources of information available to you—other parents whom you trust, the public library, reliable Web sites, local bookstores, educators, and health care providers. Information may be particularly useful to you when it comes from reputable organizations that deal with disabilities and/or sexuality. Be wary of relying on material that is negative about sexuality as such materials can limit your ability to be your child’s primary sex educator.

See also:  Sexuality Across the Lifespan for Children and Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. An instructional guide for parents and caregivers of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Canadian Women’s Foundation Fact Sheet

Further Reading & Resources