Sex Education and Special Needs: 5-10-11

Informed Is Empowered: Today I was privileged to attend the 2011 Champions Of Choice annual luncheon, sponsored by the National Institute For Reproductive Health and NARAL Pro-Choice of New York. Amongst an impressive roster of speakers, including Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, U.S. Senator for New York, was Dr. Laura Berman, who is a sex and relationship expert and hosts a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and on Oprah Radio. Dr. Berman authored a parenting guide entitled “Talking to Your Kids About Sex: turning “the talk” into a conversation for life. Some of you may know this book. I do not. But it started me thinking.

The Birds and The Bees, The Rabbits and The Pigeons: I am of the school of thought that sex education is no big deal. What I mean is, it should begin early, and appropriately, perhaps at a zoo or in our case, in our chicken/pigeon/rabbit coup. Rather than slam a child, special needs or other, with some bizarre story about what mom and dad do, let them observe and inquire, when young, and over time, leaping from rabbits to humans, the story will fold more comfortably into the psyche, extrapolating from the animal kingdom to the human domain. Observant children, or children who are allowed to wonder aloud, ask questions much earlier than middle school, often at the age of four or five or six. In fact, middle school aged children tend to shut down and avoid such issues. Parents who are comfortable in their sexual skin, or who read a few good books, can answer the questions with just the right amount of information, not to overload, but enough to satisfy a youngsters healthy curiosity.

Special Needs and Others: Parents of special needs believe that their children are especially vulnerable as targets of sexual predators. But all children are vulnerable. The difference is that special needs children become special needs adults who remain vulnerable because their cognitive challenges make judgement calls more difficult. As a parent advocate for our daughter, early in her education, I started to educate her about human sexuality, hers and others, in a pretty matter of fact manner. Usually we were watching a movie and some scene would led me to explain what was going on between the guy and the gal in what I felt were age appropriate terms. However, though our daughter was no stranger to these concepts, the application to her life and her safety remained fairly removed. Fortunately our progressive school district and later her equally progressive boarding school made sure there was sex education programming in the curriculum.

Judgement: I know of parents of special needs children who would not consider sending their middle school age sons or daughters to sleep-away camp, even if they might benefit from being with peers, for fear that someone would take advantage of their child, counselors, older campers, though the camp specialized in caring for children with challenges. I know of a special needs teenage girl who said yes to a neighborhood friend when he asked her to have “sex” with him, and another young girl who met someone online and walked out her front door into his car and was raped. A third female special needs teenager opened the door of her house to a stranger she met online, and was raped in her own home. Did these girls have any idea what they were doing? No! Not really. In the latter two cases, the girls were looking for love in all the wrong places. In the first case, the young teenager was just hanging out with a group of local kids in a neighbor’s home, whom she knew all her life. She didn’t have the judgement to say no or to grasp how outrageous was this young fellow’s request.

Sex Education: There are two distinct goals in sex education: the first is teaching our children about their own bodies and the sanctity of their bodies; no one can touch them without their permission or their parents permission, and if someone tries, scream for help, tell others, parents, educators, police. The second is the story of love and mutual sexual pleasure, creating babies and pleasuring themselves. The hope is that knowledge is power. And it is. That is what organizations such as the ones sponsoring the luncheon today are all about: empowering young girls and women to execute control over their bodies, their choices, their rights. However, in the case of a population whose judgement can be spotty, no one can count on education alone to provide sufficient protection. This is the tough stuff of adult special needs. And those of us who have daughters are especially cautious and vigilant.

24/7: Future planning for the adult special needs child requires specific attention to protecting this vulnerable population from exploitation and sexual violation. Every one of us parents knows that. Sex education is part of that, and it needs to start early in the home. Though our schools can and should offer sex education, including information on pregnancy prevention, the home is still the safest and most powerful place for children to learn about that most intimate of personal relations. Our daughter and I have been talking for years and years about this subject, both during movies, while watching the news and in long car rides. Does that mean I feel confident that she will be able to protect herself or make good decisions in the face of a strong argument by a so-called friend? No. All the safety measures that are possible have to be put into place. But I do feel that she and I have talked openly without reservation and that those conversations make it more likely that she will turn to me when she feels the need. That is what I think is best for all our kids, special needs or other. If they know that their folks can handle this sex stuff, than they know where to turn when those challenging moments arise. I agree with Dr. Berman’s title: turning that talk into a conversation for life.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W. L.C.S.W 2011

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