Sex Education for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Delays

November 29, 2021

People with Developmental Disabilities Lack Opportunities to Learn About Sexual Health

The World Health Organization defines sexual health as a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality.  For most people, sexual health is integral to their overall health and well-being. Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), including autism, express interest in relationships and sexual activities at a slightly older age than those without disabilities. However, this special population faces barriers for accessing sex education (SE) which would ultimately support their engagement in romantic relationships. In order to understand the hurdles, the appropriate context and recommendations for SE for people with intellectual disabilities, a group of researchers conducted a qualitative study addressing this sensitive topic. Their research involved  recruiting four key stakeholder groups which included 8 youths with IDD, 9 parents, 12 health care providers, and 8 educators. Data was collected through semi structured focus groups and interviews with stakeholders on three topics: best practices (e.g., comprehensive SE), barriers, and recommendations for people with IDD. The study’s results showed that participants expressed a preference for SE to be initiated proactively for individuals with IDD, before the onset of puberty. The participants also felt that SE should continue throughout the lifespan and that repetition of the SE curriculum is important. Four barriers were identified in this research. These hurdles include values and cultural issues (e.g., uneasiness with questions about masturbation and pornography), parental attitudes towards their child’s sexuality (e.g., embarrassment with the topic), a lack of organizational policies and standards (e.g., SE not mandated by the federal government), and limited professional education or societal biases (e.g., lack of institutional support). The study concluded by offering recommendations for SE for people with IDD. These recommendations included using a proactive, formal education that is provided by multiple stakeholders and continues through adulthood. An additional suggestion from this research was for healthcare providers to advocate for standards, educating students and addressing occupations related to sexuality across the lifespan.  

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