The Importance of Sexuality and Sex Education for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

By Janani Vaidya, M. S., BCBA
Garden Center Services

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that sexuality among individuals with developmental disabilities is a minimally-researched topic (Travers & Tincani, 2010). There is a common misconception that individuals with a developmental and/or an intellectual disability are asexual or childlike, not necessarily by choice, but by some sort of biological disposition. This is a misconception shared not only among parents and guardians, but also sometimes among direct support professionals working with these adults in day program and/or residential settings. In addition, there also exists a point of view that seems almost rule-governed that people with disabilities need to be protected from a highly sexual world (Lesseliers & Van Hove, 2002, p. 69).

Engaging in sexual behaviors is a fundamental right, not a privilege. There are several components that fall under the umbrella of sexuality education that can inform the risk-benefit analysis of providing sexuality education to individuals with developmental disabilities. Some of the most basic justifications as outlined by Travers & Tincani (2010, p. 285): to prevent sexual abuse, reduce risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, to decrease the likelihood of the individual engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviors, to promote good hygiene, provide access to information about intimacy, consent, sexual, and romantic relationships, and prevent unwanted pregnancy. The authors provide a substantial amount of research as proof that sexuality education is necessary and valid to individuals with developmental disabilities.

The rates of reporting sexual abuse by individuals with disabilities cannot be considered reliable because of both a deficit in the skill of reporting these events and a deficit in the discrimination of what are socially appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Also, by not teaching appropriate sexual behavior, there is an increase in the likelihood of an individual engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviors that are a result of faulty stimulus control and the resulting behavior chain that needs to be broken and the replacement behavior to be taught requires more intensive response effort from staff or guardians working with the individual.

Some research has also been conducted to debunk the myth that individuals with developmental disabilities do not prefer engaging in sexual behaviors that involve other persons. Lesseliers and Van Hove (2002) conducted a study within the framework of a qualitative inquiry into the lives of individuals with disabilities in relation to how they view interpersonal relationships and their sexual lives. They interviewed 46 adults across different residential and day programs of which 34 participants’ answers were analyzed and the results used to inform their thesis. Interviews ranged from 20-45 minutes, depending on each session and the level of verbal communication of each of the participants, and were conducted using a person-centered approach. The data were then broken down and results reported under several thematic topics, that included ideas on love, experiencing relationships under structural and personal pressure, having children, sexual intimacy, relationship conflicts versus insufficient support from family or staff, experiencing private events of guilt, experiences of sexual abuse, marriage. Etc. The study concluded that individuals with developmental disabilities experienced the same range of covert and overt behaviors under the brackets of sexuality, romance, intimacy, and other social constructs.

Another important aspect is to teach consent and assent-seeking and giving when engaging in sexual behaviors. This can be taught by as a series of rule-governed verbal behaviors, arranging the environment by manipulating motivating operations and creating naturally maintained behavioral contingencies if we consider these behaviors to be purely operant. In the absence of direct training, these behaviors can be trained using relational frames (Hayes & Barnes, 1997). Using frames of sameness and opposition, individuals with developmental disabilities can be trained to discriminate between response classes of consensual versus non-consensual sexual behavior. At the very least, it is vital to train behaviors of identifying when they are being subjected to inappropriate sexual behaviors by others, which can be done via transfer of stimulus control as outlined by Roche & Barnes (1998, p.46). There is ample evidence to support the thesis that sexuality education is crucial for individuals with developmental disabilities. While the amount of available research is not exhaustive, it is compelling enough to support further research in this area within this population.

Sexuality is a fundamental right, and therefore sexuality education should be a prerogative. Based on the principles of behavior analysis, we have the tools to systematically arrange the environment to foster and train these vital skills within the realm of sexuality education. A collaborative effort that directly involves response effort from the individuals we are targeting for training and education is a step towards promoting habilitation.

References:

Lesseliers, J. & Van Hove, G. (2002). Barriers to the development of intimate relationships and the expression of sexuality among people with developmental disabilities: Their perceptions. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 27 (1), 69-81

Hayes, S. C., & Barnes, D. (1997). Analyzing derived stimulus relations requires more than the concept of stimulus class. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 68, 235- 244

Roche, B. & Barnes, D. (1998). The experimental analysis of human sexual arousal: Some recent developments. The Behavior Analyst, 21(1), 37-52

Travers, J. & Tincani, M. (2010). Sexuality education for individuals with autism spectrum disorders: Critical issues and decision making guidelines. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45 (2), 284-293

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2016 SBRP SIG Newsletter.

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