- Sponsorship -

Talking About Sexuality Is Rarely Easy

Huge Info Gap for Those with Special Needs

There is a huge gap in what students with special needs know about human sexuality and what to do if they face a related situation or even a conversation, said an author and parent speaking to educators at Kent ISD.

She explained that misconceptions about the sexuality of teens with intellectual or developmental disabilities, confusion about how to teach students about the issue, and a lack of general information has created this gap for students.

For parents of children with intellectual disabilities: Conversation tips about human sexuality from author & parent Terri Couwenhoven

Use teachable moments to help children learn. If you know you need to begin discussing puberty, think about an opportunity that would allow you to share brief pieces of information. Here’s an example for puberty and body changes: “I just bought you those pants at the beginning of the school year and look how short they are. You are really in a growth spurt. Do you know what this means? You have started puberty.”

Check understanding often. Rather than ring alarm bells when something is said about sexuality or a related topic, try not to jump to conclusions. Try to get into the child’s perspective and find out what he or she knows or doesn’t know. Ask questions like “What do you think sex means?” Finding out what a child is thinking helps you to know where to begin.

Share small bits of information, and repeat and reinforce them over time. One-time discussions are not effective for anyone, and they are especially ineffective for children with intellectual disabilities. Break up the topic into many smaller items.

Facts and values are two different things, but both are important. As parents, we often like to emphasize the right and wrong (values) aspects of sexuality and forget to make sure our kids get the facts. Share facts first so questions get answered, then add your own personal values.

Terri Couwenhoven’s latest book, “Boyfriends & Girlfriends: A Guide to Dating for People with Disabilities,” aims to fill that gap for students with special needs. Couwenhoven, the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, spoke earlier this year to more than 60 area teachers and staff, on ways to teach these students about boundaries and their sexuality.

“It’s not something many parents are comfortable talking about,” she said, noting that even teaching the correct words for body parts can make parents squirm.

But it’s very important to talk about the subject with students, she explained, because by the time these students graduate, more than 90 percent of them have been sexually assaulted. “The abuse rates are really horrendous,” said Couwenhoven, coordinator for the Down Syndrome Clinic of Wisconsin at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

How could it be that bad?

There are many reasons, she said, and wanting to be accepted is a big one. “The intellectually disabled don’t know it’s abuse,” she said. “They think it’s something good.” They typically don’t have enough knowledge to know any different.

Students Easily Confused and Teachers Want to Help

Students also have to deal with confusing double standards. While public displays of affection are OK for others, when a couple with intellectual disabilities show affection, “people freak out,” Couwenhoven said.

And while “their sexual feelings are normal and healthy,” Couwenhoven said, when they make some kind of mistake, that is often the first time most intellectually disabled students get information on sexuality.

Changing that fact is why Cheryl Blair, Kent ISD’s comprehensive health education consultant, brought in Couwenhoven, an internationally recognized speaker on the subject.

“Educators have been interested in learning how to handle the issue,” said Blair, who had heard Couwenhoven speak at a conference. “Many special ed and classroom teachers find it challenging for kids with special needs. The feedback from those who attended the training was very positive.”

The way information is presented is crucial to any students learning sexual subjects. But it has to be taught differently to meet the needs of students with special needs. “You can’t do cartoon-like pictures for them because it doesn’t look real,” Couwenhoven said.

Students need photos of real people to help them understand, because they typically don’t do well with auditory learning. Teaching a student how to take a shower, for example, should be broken down into many single steps and pictures.

Another example of breaking down information was explaining about menstrual periods. “The only period in some girls’ heads is the one at the end of a sentence,” she said. “You have to use visuals.”

Her book, “Boyfriends & Girlfriends,” is aimed at students with intellectual disabilities and can also be a guide for parents and educators. The book covers the “do’s and don’ts of dating” and helps students understand their “desire for companionship and romance.”

Example topics include:

  • what it means to be a boyfriend or girlfriend;
  • who is an appropriate dating partner and who is not;
  • how to ask someone on a date;
  • how to handle rejections;
  • what sexual feelings are;
  • how to tell whether someone is interested in dating.


“Boyfriends & Girlfriends: A Guide to Dating for People with Disabilities,” by Terri Couwenhoven

“Teaching Children with Down Syndrome about their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality by Terri Couwenhoven

- Sponsorship -
Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU