Addressing the issue of sexuality with kids with special needs

As parents, we arm ourselves with education and support to better prepare us and our children for various developmental milestones. When our children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or an intellectual/developmental disability, we typically work hard on every imaginable skill, including teeth brushing, dressing, toilet training, walking and talking. However, we are unprepared for puberty–and the thought that our children could in fact be sexual beings.

While children with special needs can be delayed in just about every aspect of development, the one thing that hits right on time is the firing of hormones. Consequently, it is necessary for you and your child to be armed and ready for puberty. When addressing sexuality with your children, there are several important things to focus on.


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  • talk to your children
  • be careful of what you say
  • stay calm
  • ask questions

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  • assume your child is not a sexual being
  • make up stories
  • jump to conclusions
  • believe that sexual feelings and behaviors will just go away

Shawn McGill, MSW, LSW‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do talk to your children

Start at an early age. Talk to them about the little things without scorn or judgment. If parents want their children to talk with them about the big issues, such as sexuality, kids need to first feel safe and comfortable knowing they can talk to parents about the little things.

Do be careful of what you say

It is best to be open and honest. If you have particular religious or moral values regarding sexuality that you share as a family, then discuss them as a family. Be careful to censor yourself with regard to comments you make about others regarding their sexuality. Again, this will only deter your child from being open and honest with you. Your goal is to assist them to safely explore their sexuality with support and guidance, not to have them explore sexuality in isolation without the proper education and support.

Do stay calm

When your children begin to demonstrate sexual behaviors, or they begin to discuss their sexual feelings, it is important to manage your own reactions. Do your best to accept what they are saying. Remember, if you overreact, they will likely shut down and explore on their own. Or they will seek advice and guidance from someone else or from the internet, which is not always a reliable teaching tool. If you underreact, your children can be left feeling isolated, depressed, confused and extremely frustrated.

Do ask questions

Don’t be afraid to engage in a discussion and ask for clarification about whatever it is that your child is saying. Focus on their feelings and not your own. For example, if your son begins to talk about having a crush on a girl at school, openly and calmly talk to him about what he thinks and feels. Encourage him to describe himself in those moments when he is with the girl or when he thinks about the girl. You are beginning to help him associate his actions with feelings, and love is a beautiful thing.

Shawn McGill, MSW, LSW‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not assume your child is not a sexual being

Sexuality is a basic human need. As human beings, we are wired to have sexual feelings because without them, life cannot sustain. People with disabilities are not the exception to the norm. They, too, have sexual feelings, and they must be given the opportunity to find healthy, safe ways to explore and express their sexual feelings.

Do not make up stories

Creating stories to deter your child from exploring his or her sexuality is not only unhelpful, but it can be quite damaging as well. Children are often very literal, concrete thinkers. Telling your son that his penis will fall off to deter him from masturbating will likely not deter him from exploring his sexual feelings; rather, it will likely help him find new ways to explore sexuality that can lead to more damaging and dangerous results.

Do not jump to conclusions

Your child will express his or her sexuality in some way–and you need to not only manage your reactions, but also focus on not jumping to conclusions. Each child is uniquely different, and it is important not to blow things out of proportion. Remember: Having an erection and masturbating are both normal.

Do not believe that sexual feelings and behaviors will just go away

There is no magic pill or interventionl that can deter sexual feelings. It becomes the responsibility of parents to put healthy sexuality on the forefront, and teach safe, healthy expressions related to privacy, boundaries and relationships. If you feel you are unable to manage this topic with your child, or you feel the situation is extremely unique, then seek the advice of a professional who can assist you. Sexual feelings will not simply disappear, and the longer issues are ignored, the more ingrained patterns of behaviors become. All behaviors are a form of communication, so it becomes a parent’s responsibility, even with sexual behaviors, to determine what it is their children are trying to communicate.


As parents and supporters, we need to be ready for puberty. Unfortunately, there are no manuals that tell us how to talk to our children with disabilities about sexuality. This advice provides parents with a general overview on how to navigate the process.

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