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Teaching Sexuality: What Works?

by Terri Couwenhoven MS,CSE

  • Visual strategies are critical- People with developmental disabilities are almost always visual learners. When possible, use pictures, videos, photos, role playing, or other concrete techniques. 
  • Repeat & reinforce concepts over time- One time “sex talks” rarely work for anyone (disability or not).  People with developmental disabilities typically benefit from hearing/seeing/discussing concepts in different environments and contexts over time. Think of sexual learning as a “process” rather than a “session”. Then look for opportunities to repeat and reinforce information during relevant situations that make sense for your child (teachable moments).
  • Use simple, unsophisticated language that makes sense for your son or daughter- Sexuality is a tough topic for many people. It is common, when a topic is uncomfortable, to unconsciously speak faster (because the sooner we finish the better!), use big words (because slang might be difficult for us to say), or insert complex analogies that are confusing and abstract.  Try to use language that makes sense for your son or daughter and slow down. Give them time to process what you are teaching. 
  • Teach facts & boundaries- Facts are facts. Body parts have names, and words have definitions. People with developmental disabilities tend to struggle more with the social rules and boundaries surrounding words and definitions. Teach facts AND boundaries to enhance both understanding and social appropriateness. 


Example 1:

FACT– Masturbation is touching or rubbing the genitals for pleasure

BOUNDARY– Masturbation is private. If you want to touch or rub your ___, you need to go to your private place. Your private place is __________.

Example 2:

FACT- Flirting means using your body or words to let another person know you are attracted to them or interested.

BOUNDARY- Who is it okay to flirt with? When?

Example 3:

FACT– A date is a planned get together between two people who might like to be a couple or are already a couple.

BOUNDARY- Who is an appropriate dating partner?

  • Use developmental age to decide how you will need to modify and adapt information. You know better than anyone your son or daughter’s level of understanding. If your son or daughter has low reading levels, use pictures, rather than words, to teach.

  • Use chronological age to determine boundaries and societal expectations for behavior.  The rest of the world does not care or understand your child’s developmental age. They see your son or daughter’s chronological age and will expect your son or daughter to act socially appropriate.  Use chronological age to work towards expected social behaviors.

  • Begin with the most immediate need– The depth and breadth of sexuality topics and issues can be mind boggling. Begin with your son or daughter’s most immediate needs. Often, the most immediate needs for sexuality education revolve around safety, social appropriateness, and independence.

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