Puberty can be a tough time for all young people but for kids with intellectual disability it can be even harder, for both them and their parents and care givers. Children with differing abilities may develop earlier or later. Although no two children will develop the same way, they will still progress through the different stages. Each child also has their own learning needs. Learning about the development that happens at different ages will help you to understand where your child is physically in their development.
But while a child’s cognitive understanding of puberty and sexuality may be delayed for his or her age, the process of body maturation, hormonal changes, and sexual feelings usually is not — creating a mismatch that can be dangerous if ignored.
Here’s the good news – you can’t introduce things too early! Discussing topics earlier than you think is often the best time. Do it before they are asking questions, because they can’t ask questions about things they don’t know about yet! Plus, you might not want the questions that come up from them learning about sexual health topics from TV, movies, social media, or their peers. Keep it straightforward, simple, and honest. Ignoring topics can teach them to feel guilty or shameful of certain feelings and thoughts and those are likely the feelings and thoughts we don’t want them to be hiding from us. We want them to get the right information from a person they can trust.
Some things will go over their heads or maybe even gross them out. A child or teen, with Down syndrome or without, will pay attention to what they are ready for. It won’t confuse them. Books and picture books are great so they can point out what they are interested in. Don't worry there are book suggestions at the end of this blog.
Now if they’re grossed out? Encourage that! Finding something gross is a healthy, normal reaction to something you and your body is not ready to see or do. People touch what!? It goes where!? Depending on what the topic is, reassure them that it is your body and your choice. Slogans work well with folks with Down syndrome. Try, “My body, my choice!” or “I’m the boss of my body!” You never have to do something you are not ready for, something that sounds gross, something that sounds scary, or anything you don’t want to do with your body or another person’s body. One day, it might sound interesting or appealing, and you will be there to discuss it with them in more detail then.
Most children show signs of puberty between the ages of 9 and 14. Children with differing abilities may develop earlier or later. Ask your family doctor if you have questions or concerns about this. Give your child the facts about their body. Explain what puberty is before they start showing signs: This will help them understand that these changes are normal and healthy.
Emotional changes are often the first sign that your child’s starting puberty. Hormones kick off the physical changes. This can be both exciting and upsetting for a child. That’s why it’s important to talk to your child about these changes and help them learn the skills to cope with all the emotional and physical changes.
You'll want to cover hygiene, menstrual products, erections, wet dreams, sexual feelings and crushes, touch, consent, relationships, sex, pregnancy, masturbation, keeping safe, and more.
If you just felt overwhelmed, don't worry there is a lot of help out there! Of course there is The Talk Institute. Our self-paced E-courses are perfect to take your time and talk through these topics. I also know of a fantastic Australian resource for teaching your children with differing abilities about puberty as well. I also have lists of other resources and books to help you get started. You've got this. Now let's talk through a few things.
Hygiene can be more challenging during puberty. Hygiene instructions should be basic and step by step. Checklists can often work well for morning and evening routines depending on the disability. You can give weekly rewards or incentives to help keep them motivated. Just Google hygiene checklist for teens and you'll find some great downloads and ideas.
Talk about private behaviours and that private parts of the body should only be touched when in private places like the bathroom or bedroom.
It's also important to point out, using appropriate terms, what body parts are private and to stress that people are not allowed to touch these parts of their body without permission and vice versa. Our private body parts are also covered and are not touched when we are in public places.
Sexuality is an important part of overall well-being for all individuals, including those with disabilities. Children and youth who receive sexuality education that focuses on their needs are less vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation and have healthier friendships and relationships. Each child is unique and thus, strategies will need to be tailored to each child’s specific needs and abilities.
People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than 7 times that for people without disabilities. Disability can make someone more vulnerable to assault and abuse. Children with differing abilities of any kind are more than 2 times as likely to be sexually abused, as a child with no disability. Adults with developmental disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted.
Children with special needs are often viewed by perpetrators as easy targets for abuse. In fact, of all the various types of abuse that children with disabilities experience, a significant percentage of them will experience sexual abuse.
One way to illustrate this point is to explain that they always have a choice about sharing affection with another person. As a result, remind them that they are always allowed to say no if they do not want to hug or kiss someone goodbye—even Grandma.
Children's books and media are great tools to use to get this conversation started. Remember it is not one single talk but many "talks" to cover all the things your child will need to know. I know this is a lot to think about but you've got this!
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