Educating children with intellectual disabilities about sex and sexuality

Social care worker/ Sexuality Educator Michelle Murphy tells JENNIFER HORGAN about an upcoming workshop she is hosting for children with disabilities and their parents
Educating children with intellectual disabilities about sex and sexuality

Michelle Murphy of RelateAble

MICHELLE Murphy has worked in the field of intellectual disability for over 20 years. During this time, she’s identified sex and sexuality as taboo topics for young people in her care.

“The Myth of Asexuality study conducted around 20 years ago found that people without disabilities tend to see people with disabilities as eternal children,” she said.

“Sadly, this perception is still common. Of course, children and young adults with disabilities have needs and desires like anyone.”

Michelle sees a growing openness among younger parents, but feels there is need for continued education on both sex and sexuality, which is why she’s offering RelateAble workshops to both children with disabilities and their parents.

“Sexuality incorporates a lot of topics. I look at bodies, beliefs, sexual orientation, puberty, and menstruation. We hear a lot about The Talk, but really the talk shouldn’t happen. Especially when there is a disability involved, parents need to be talking about these topics on an ongoing basis.

“These young people have the same level of curiosity as a neurotypical young person, but they often miss out on the informal education they might receive from peers because they are in special schools, classrooms, or centres.”

The educator points out the obvious but perhaps little-remarked upon fact that children with disabilities are often in the company of an SNA or a carer. Naturally, these young people don’t get to hear the jokes or banter that often happens away from grown-ups.

“We protect them, and of course we must, but this means certain young people are denied the hidden curriculum that other children experience. The hidden curriculum is the unofficial way of learning about our sexuality.

“In a school or social setting, perhaps it’s jokes or songs with mild sexual innuendo – in the past it might have been playing ‘kiss chase’ or ‘spin the bottle’.

“As children get older, it could be sharing memes on social media or listening to friends talk about things they may have seen on TV. So, we must be extremely aware of the need for ongoing education in this area. 

"Parents must talk about these topics regularly because these children often need a lot of repetition and reinforcement.”

This hidden curriculum extends to the family home.

“Another example of the ‘hidden curriculum’ would be what a child learns from observation in the family home. In this context, it can be useful for a parent to be mindful of what they are modelling, e.g. do they knock on their child’s bedroom or bathroom door before entering? If they need to assist their child with personal care, do they close the door or leave it wide open because they are ‘only’ in the family home? As they grow older, this could inadvertently send a child with an intellectual disability the message that it’s normal and safe to leave the bathroom door open no matter where they are, such as in a public toilet in a shopping centre.”

According to Murphy, the standard relationship and sex education in Irish schools simply isn’t enough for this reason. The parent must be giving the same messages again and again. With a neurotypical child, you might tell them to close the door when they go to the toilet, and they’ll get it pretty quickly, but with a child with an intellectual disability that might not happen.

In the same way, telling them a toilet is for private actions can lead to them acting inappropriately in a public toilet. Parents need to be very explicit and repetitive in the information they share.

“In the case of autism, this might include using social stories where the child sees pictures of social situations. Arts and crafts can also be used to create private signs in the home. When it comes to things like masturbation, older children need to know exactly where it is appropriate to engage in masturbation. 

"Vague concepts such as ‘in the bathroom’ or ‘private’ might not suffice - which bathroom, exactly? (answer - their own bathroom, at home, with the door locked).”

Michelle Murphy visited St John’s Special school in Dungarvan at the end of June. It went well, with some children showing more awareness then others. She works gradually through the topics in an age-appropriate way, discussing broader relationships before anything romantic.

“We talk about every kind of touch first, from high fives to handshakes to kissing and appropriate touching. Children with intellectual disabilities get a lot of praise for being quiet and compliant, which can leave them very vulnerable to grooming and abuse. If a child is used to being asked to be a good boy or girl, to stay quiet, they can be easily manipulated. This can even happen within a service, so this information is deeply important and empowering.

“I feel that children and young adults with intellectual disability need to be equipped with a strong sense of bodily autonomy - that their body is their body, that nobody has the right to touch them without their permission, and that it’s OK to tell a trusted adult if they feel that somebody is touching them in a way that doesn’t feel right.”

Michelle provides practical advice, like telling a child to approach a woman with children if they find themselves lost in public because she is less likely statistically to pose a threat to their safety. She is very conscious that these children might be accustomed to someone taking them to the bathroom.

“They trust someone to perform intimate personal care. They must know what is right and what is not. They also need to know who they would speak to if something were to feel uncomfortable or unusual, if somebody were touching or hurting them. I advise parents to have a photograph of that person around, maybe on the fridge for example. 

"Children with intellectual disabilities oftentimes need a lot of reinforcement and repetition, and visual aids such as photos can be helpful in helping a message sink in.”

Down Syndrome Ireland, Cork (DSI Cork) gave Michelle Murphy her ‘break’ and she commends the staff and families for their foresight. She gave a talk to a group of parents last March at The Field of Dreams. This was a presentation for parents on how to equip them to have their own conversations with their kids around sex and sexuality.

“I think it’s important for parents to be involved in their child’s Relationship and Sexuality Education. Even when special needs schools provide RSE, the learning from within the family can be of paramount importance. Sometimes, because there is such a taboo around the topic, people can panic or be confused when they hear me mention sexuality, but it’s important that parents and young people understand the difference between sex and sexuality - the world sex can of course refer to the physical act of having sex, but sexuality is much broader. I like to joke that sex is between the legs, but sexuality is between the ears!”

Michelle’s upcoming workshop on August 27 is called Preparing for Puberty, for girls aged 9+. She will be discussing periods, PMT, changes to the body etc. It promises to be a very practical, interactive workshop. For more contact

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