How to Talk About Sex with Your Intellectually Disabled Child

Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels
Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels

Growing up, sex was never spoken about at home. I got my sex education the same way most of my friends did – the technicalities were taught in science class and in mandatory sex education classes, but the rest of it was through stories from friends who were more than willing to share. I turned to pornography too because I am a visual learner.

Basically, the resources for sex education for a person with normal intellect are abundant. A quick Google search easily turns up results on how to masturbate, what to do and expect during your first time, as well as navigating issues like mutual consent and communication with a partner.

Sexual deviance and children with an intellectual disability

But what happens when you are not of normal intellect or suffer from an intellectual disability? What resources are there for those without the intellectual capability to learn about sex?

A recent report on a 16-year-old boy who molested a 40-year-old woman prompted Mary to ask these questions. The boy was reported to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and had had appointments at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

While it was not entirely clear that he had other mental issues, Mary believes those with intellectual disabilities find it harder to cope with sexual deviance.

Mary, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother, has an 11-year-old son of normal intellect, and an eight-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. With her son, she is confident her husband and her son’s school would be able to handle his questions about sex, but she is worried for when her daughter hits puberty and would experience sexual urges, like any normal teenager.

Other parents facing the same struggles

Her worries are not unfounded – a report by ChannelNewsAsia (CNA) found that parents of children with special needs had difficulties finding sex education resources that would be adequate and appropriate.

CNA had spoken to Jacqueline Ang, who is a mother of twin girls with a severe form of autism. Her daughters are non-verbal and had trouble expressing the sexual frustration they felt, which led to incidents of the girls trying to masturbate in public.

Ang, who thought the matter could be resolved on its own, soon realised that it was better to give her girls a private space, as advised by their paediatrician. She also provided them with bolsters and large stuffed toys to provide some comfort.

But Mary, who watched Ang’s struggles, is still concerned about teaching her daughter about sex. “The resources, especially for girls with an intellectual disability, is just not there,” she said.

“With my son, [my husband and I] have already discussed how we would approach ‘the talk’ with him, but with my daughter, I’m quite clueless on how to even begin the discussion,” she further explained.

Mary’s daughter has a low intelligence quotient, so while communication is possible, her daughter does have difficulty grasping concepts. Mary also feels that she does have a tendency to infantilise her daughter, and is unsure if this will carry over when she broaches an “adult” topic like sex with her.

“She has a similar mental age as her peers right now, but it is likely to remain [at eight years of age] as she grows older,” she explained. “I don’t know how an eight-year-old would be able to handle understanding sex outside of technical aspects of it.”

Current resources for parents and caregivers

So where can parents of children with intellectual disabilities turn to for sex education resources?

  • Public special education (Sped) schools

The Ministry of Education has developed and designed programmes for students in Sped schools to learn about personal safety and relationships. The ministry was spurred to create one after a spate of reports of special needs children being taken advantage of.

The programme is not only useful for Sped students but for caregivers and parents also, who require guidance in approaching the topic at home.

  • Disabled People’s Association

DPA held its first sexuality workshop for those with mental and physical disabilities and their caregivers last year. This year, the association teamed up with SPD for a similar workshop held online in July.

The peaked interest and popularity in such workshops conducted by sexologists who have extensive research in handling such a situation will ensure a repeat of similar programmes in the future. DPA is also looking to expand the programme to include consultations with parents who might require detailed plans catered to their child’s needs.

In curating this list, TheHomeGround.Asia was surprised to learn that there really are not anymore places for parents and caregivers of children with intellectual disabilities to discuss sexual education for their wards, which proves the need to continue on this conversation.

Opening up about sex at home

“I think maybe it starts with us being comfortable talking about sex first, before we start conversations about sexual education for those with intellectual disabilities,” said Mary.

Growing up in an Asian family with conservative values made her shy about talking about sex, but having a daughter with Down syndrome has made her realise that she needed to talk about it openly, so that her own children would not turn to just any resource for education.

“I want my son to be able to turn to me or my husband to talk about sex, instead of asking his friends who might have well-meaning intentions but are ill-informed about sex,” she said.

“At least we have the experience and can guide him on the appropriate measures to take should he want to explore his sexuality. In doing so, I hope my daughter can see my husband and I as safe resources to talk about such as issue as well when the time comes.”

 

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