Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

How and Why Sexual Development is Different for People with Developmental Disabilities


Note: In order to get the most out of this article, we strongly suggest that you first read Sexual Development from 0-18 Years Old. Much of what is discussed here is based on the information provided in that article.


In Sexual Development from 0-18 Years Old, we talked about what typical sexual development was like for a child without a developmental disability. Now let's see how a disability can affect a person's ability to gain the necessary information and get the necessary practice in order to be a sexually healthy adult. Here are some of the ways things may change:

    • There may be delays in reaching some of the stages of sexual development.
    • A child with a developmental disability may be isolated from other children and not have the opportunity to engage in “sex play.”
    • A child with a developmental disability may never learn the language of sexuality (if parents don’t consider the child to be sexual).
    • A child with a developmental disability will need more time to learn the facts about sex, pregnancy, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, etc., etc.
    • A child with a developmental disability will need more practice in making good decisions and communicating assertively.
    • A child with a developmental disability will feel even more self-conscious as other children become interested in all "non-normal" things.
    • It may be harder to get dates and to learn the intricacies of dating.
    • In order to fit in, children with disabilities may be more susceptible to peer pressure.

Profound Implications

All of this has profound implications. We’ll mention just three of them...

1. People without developmental disabilities have learned a number of concepts that help keep them safe. They have learned about modesty and privacy. They have learned about relationships and appropriate touch. And they have learned, at least to some extent, the language of sexuality. Now imagine your typical person with a developmental disability. They probably have an incredibly skewed concept of modesty and privacy, not just because we haven't taught it, but also because the privacy of people with developmental disabilities is often not respected. They probably have no idea about how to behave in a relationship. They do not know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch. And they do not know the proper words for the different body parts and functions.

The result? People with developmental disabilities masturbate in public, they hug and kiss in inappropriate ways, and they become perfect victims for sexual abuse because they can't describe what happened to them.

2. People with developmental disabilities may have poor decision-making and communication skills, not just because we haven't taught them, but also because we may be making too many of their decisions for them.

The result? People with developmental disabilities are unable to make informed decisions about sexual matters that could have tragic consequences. They are unable to communicate their needs, desires, and limits.

3. Stereotypes are perpetuated. People with developmental disabilities are considered either inherently sexually innocent or inherently sexually deviant. If they appear innocent, it's because they have not been provided with enough information about their bodies, and they have not been given the skills to say "no." If they appear sexually deviant, it's because we haven't taught them about modesty and privacy; we haven't respected their modesty or privacy; we haven't provided them with private spaces, and; we don't allow them to express their sexuality in healthy ways.

Practical Implications

Parents of children without developmental disabilities can get away with certain things that you can’t get away with. Here are just some of those things:

1. They can change their child’s diapers in public. You can’t. It’s okay when your child is an infant, but if your child is still wearing diapers when they are 3, 4, or 5 years old or older, then you should only change their diapers in a private place. Why? Do you really want your child to get the message that it’s okay to take off your clothes in public? You don’t mean to give this message, but that’s the message a child with a developmental disability may receive anyway. And no parent wants their child, especially as they get older, to be showing their private parts in public.

2. They can let their child urinate in public. You can’t. You’ve seen it… the parent who lets their 3 year-old child pull down their pants and urinate by the bushes – right in front of everyone else. Don’t worry about that child – they’ll get the message that such behavior is okay when they’re young, but not acceptable when they get older. But your child may not get that message. If you allow them to urinate in public when they’re young, then they may see nothing wrong with urinating in public when they’re older.

If your child happens to witness another child urinating in public, talk with your child about it. Be sure to express your displeasure that a parent would allow such a thing.

3. They can let a stranger hug their child. You can’t. First of all, parents of children without developmental disabilities never let strangers hug their children. But some parents of children with observable disabilities (for example, Down syndrome) do allow it. You can’t control the reactions of a stranger to a child with a disability, but you should stop that stranger from touching your child. Why? If your child gets the message that it’s okay for strangers to touch them, then it will be much easier for that child to fall victim to a sexual abuser. And if you allow strangers to touch your child, your child may also be getting the message that it’s okay for them to touch strangers or anyone else they want to touch – without getting consent first.

To learn more about protecting your child from sexual abuse, please read Teaching Sexual Abuse Prevention: Circles and Relationships.

4. They can let any friend or relative hug their child. You can’t. It’s not just strangers – don’t let friends and relatives hug or kiss your child if your child doesn’t like it. Even if it’s grandma or grandpa. The goal in sexual abuse prevention is to get children to understand that their bodies belong to themselves and that they have a right to say “no” to unwanted touch. You’ll never be able to teach this essential skill if you keep making exceptions. And remember, most sexual abusers are someone the child knows.

This also means that you can’t bribe your child into accepting unwanted hugs or kisses – by saying something like, “If you let grandma hug you, I’ll give you a piece of candy.” That’s what abusers do. We want children to “listen to their gut” – if they’re with someone and it feels yucky, if it feels like their stomach is tied up in knots, then they should get out of the situation. You should be teaching your child to say “no” to unwanted touch – no matter what. You shouldn’t be encouraging them to give in to temptation.

Be sure to smooth things over with your friend or relative afterward. Explain why your child gets to decide who touches them.

Finally, we hope you understand that this also works in reverse. Never force your child to kiss or hug a friend or relative.

To learn more about protecting your child from sexual abuse, please read Teaching Sexual Abuse Prevention: Circles and Relationships.

Other Things You Probably Shouldn’t Do

It would be impossible to provide you with a complete list of everything you should and shouldn’t do as you raise your child in a sexually healthy way. But here are some other “don’ts” that we’ve come across:

1. Don’t forbid your child from attending sexuality classes at school.

2. Don’t prevent your child from having contact with children of the other sex. It’s normal and natural.

3. Don’t take a boy into a women’s bathroom or a girl into a men’s bathroom unless you have no choice, and not until you explain to your child why they should never do such a thing on their own.

4. Don’t leave the door open when you use the toilet. You want your child to know that such behaviors are strictly private.

5. If your child touches your private parts, don’t ignore it or laugh about it. Talk about it. That’s the only way your child will learn about privacy and modesty.

6. If you’re having a problem with your child, it’s okay to talk about it with an understanding friend. But it’s not okay for your child to overhear the conversation. You’ll only be giving the message that it’s okay to talk about private things in public.

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