By: Lauren Kante
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
“Adults with developmental disorders are consequently impeded by societal barriers from developing typical romantic and sexual relationships and are discouraged from expressing themselves sexually” (Saxe & Flanagan, 2014, pg. 46). Ignorance and fear by others has prevented individuals with disabilities to fully be members of society, unlike typically developing individuals (Lumley & Scotti, 2001). Many of these individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities express the same desires to engage in sexual behaviors as do typically developing individuals. Often due to the insensibility and cowardice of others, misconceptions about individuals with disabilities engaging in sexual behaviors can lead these behaviors to be punished. Many of the misconceptions regarding sexuality and individuals with disabilities have led many caregivers, support staff, and guardians to resist proper sexual education.
Many caregivers, support staff, and guardians do not accept that individuals with disabilities have the competency to engage in sexual behaviors or romantic/sexual relationships, so therefore they do not teach sexual education (Saxe & Flanagan, 2014). There is a significant lack of sexual education for those diagnosed with various intellectual and developmental disorders compared to typically developing teenagers and adults. This is evident in past research, which has shown that individuals often engage in dangerous sexual behaviors because they had not been taught the appropriate and safe behaviors to engage in to satisfy those sexual desires and urges. Individuals with disabilities don’t just “outgrow” a sexual behavior. Those behaviors increase because they are maintained by certain reinforcing contingencies, and if those contingencies continue, the behavior will continue.
Appropriate sexual education is necessary to promote socio-sexual functioning in adults and children with developmental disorders (Sullivan & Caterino, 2008). Individuals with disabilities should learn about their sexual rights, how to engage in safe sex, and learn consent, however caregivers and support workers should have the skills, tools, and confidence to teach sexual education to those individuals.
Saxe and Flanagan (2014) investigated support worker attitudes towards sexuality and sexual education for adults with developmental disorders. Participants were given various surveys and questionnaires related to sexuality, as well as the Attitudes to Sexuality Scale (ATS) (Cuskelly & Bryde, 2004) and the Perceptions of Sexuality Scale (POS) (Scotti, Slack, Bowman, & Morris, 1996). Their results showed a need for educational programs and trainings geared towards staff and caregivers so that they understand sexual rights of their clients. The majority of adults with developmental disorders look to their support givers for advice and assistance, but many of these caregivers give little effort in addressing sexuality (Lumley & Scott, 2001).
Lumley and Scotti (2001) investigated the traditional approach to teaching sexual education to adults with developmental disorders and how current practices of individualized programs may be more beneficial for teaching sexual education, including the Person-Centered Planning, a plan developed by the team to accomplish goals that are focused on the individual’s wants and needs related to sexual behaviors, encourages significant people within the individual’s life, such as guardians, caregivers, and support staff, to teach sexual education and implement individualized programs (Falvey, Forest, Pearpoint, & Rosenberg, 1997). It is necessary for those individual staff members to receive appropriate training to improve their own preferences in regards to sexuality being expressed by their clients, provide information about sexual activity, and be able to provide instruction during sexual education programs (Lumley and Scotti, 2001). Consistent and continual education for staff members to teach sexual education and implement individualized plans regarding sexual behavior is an important step in encouraging individuals with disabilities to explore their own sexuality.
However, to begin sexual education for teenagers and adults with disabilities, there should be people to teach them. Caregivers, support staff, and guardians are constantly providing care and advice while teaching individuals with disabilities to be as independent as possible, so they would be best to teach appropriate sexual behaviors. A staff training on clients’ sexual rights would be the starting point in the process of teaching sexual education. They need to be accepting of clients’ sexual rights, even if their religious beliefs and own life values conflict with those rights. Sexuality is something that everyone experiences and has great social significance. The more caregivers, support staff, and guardians advocate for sexual rights and sexual education, the more others who may not agree will begin to accept rights regarding sexuality for individuals with disabilities.
Cuskelly, M. & Bryde, R. (2004).
Attitudes towards the sexuality of adults with intellectual disability: guardians, support staff, and a community sample. Journal of Intellectual Disability, 29, 225-264.
Falvey, M. A., Forest, M., Pearpoint, J., & Rosenberg, R. L. (1997). All my life’s a circle: using the tools: circles, MAPS, and paths. Toronto, Canada: Inclusion press.
Lumley, V. A. & Scotti, J. R. (2001). Supporting the sexuality of adults with mental retardation: current statues and future directions. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 3, 109-119.
Saxe, A & Flanagan, T. (2013). Factors that
impact support workers’ perceptions of the sexuality of adults with developmental disabilities: a quantitative analysis. Sex Disability, 32, 45-63.
Scotti, J. R., Slack, B. S., Bowman, R.A., & Morris, T. L. (1996). College students’ attitudes concerning the sexuality of persons with mental development of the perceptions of sexuality scale. Sexual Disability, 14, 249-263.
Sullivan, A. & Caterino, L. C. (2008). Addressing sexuality and sex education of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Education and Treatment of Children, 31, 381-394.
This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2015 SBRP SIG Newsletter.