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Talking about Sexuality with a Child Who Has Developmental Disabilities

Conversations about sexuality can yield many benefits when you talk with a child who has developmental disabilities. The positive effects for your child include not only an understanding of sexuality, but also opportunities to learn, grow, and build life skills. These talks enable young people to understand which behaviors are inappropriate in public or are destructive to relationships, trust, and self-esteem. They also allow young people to recognize and prevent abuse and exploitation. Remember to include the 4 Themes of Let's Be Honest: Communication in families that keeps kids healthy  in your ongoing conversations: Rights & Responsibilities; Values; Feelings & Self-Esteem; and Facts & Knowledge.

Young people who have developmental disabilities deserve accurate, age and developmentally appropriate sexual health information. This can sometimes be challenging for parents and young people if some learning channels are blocked or if commonly used teaching tools (such as diagrams and charts) are less than useful for children who learn in non-traditional ways. Nevertheless, the numerous benefits are worth the effort. Here are some tips and ideas for beginning your conversation:

Use pictures as often as you can. 
Photos of family or friends can be a springboard for talking about relationships and social interactions. These give important and immediate context to your discussions, which is key for children who process information more successfully with the use of concrete ideas.

Use repetition and reinforcement by providing small amounts of information in context.
Check that your child understands by asking questions that put the information in a practical context. Use opportunities to repeat key ideas in other settings-for instance, while watching television programs that deal with relationships or sexuality issues.

Draw, copy, or buy a full body drawing or chart.
This is a concrete way to show where body parts are and what they do.

For more involved tasks (such as personal hygiene related to menstruation), try to break down the activity into several steps.
Frequently review the steps with your child and always provide feedback and praise. If you are unsure whether your steps are concrete and understandable, write them down and try following them yourself. Did you leave anything out? Using a pad or tampon during menstruation or cleaning beneath the foreskin of the penis may seem straightforward, but these activities require several separate steps in a particular order.

Repeat information often, and offer feedback and praise.
Reinforce important concepts frequently. Practice! Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities to try out his/her skills.

Use existing resources.
Visit the library and check out books, videos and websites about talking with your kids about sexuality.

Network with other parents.
Share your insights and listen to theirs. Involve others by communicating with teachers, coaches, and caseworkers about the topics you are discussing. Share ways they can reinforce these lessons at school, work, or on the playing field.

Recognize and validate your child's feelings.
This is a unique opportunity to get to know your child better and reinforces self-worth and assertive communication skills.

Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know the answer to that question." But, be sure to follow up with, "Let's find out together!" Then do so.

There is no single approach that is always best. As a parent, you have the opportunity to investigate and experiment, to be creative, and to learn from your successes as well as your missteps!

Adapted from Lisa Maurer, MS, CFLE, ACSE, Consultant and Trainer: Reprinted with permission from Advocates for Youth

U.S. Teen Pregnancy Rate Reaches Historic Low: Parents Make a Difference!

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics shows a 40 percent drop in the U.S. teen pregnancy rate from 1990 to 2008, the lowest recorded level since 1976.  Pregnancy rates for women in their early 20s declined to the lowest level in more than three decades.

"We know how to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in this country: years of research shows that high-quality sex education, encouraging parents to talk with their children about sex, and ensuring access to health care services makes a measurable difference," said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  "But the teen pregnancy rate in this country is still far higher than it should be and we need to be particularly concerned about continued disparities in the progress that has been made."

The report shows that although pregnancy rates have declined significantly for all teens, in 2008, rates for African-American and Latino teens were two to three times higher than rates for white teens.  "When we see disparities like this, it means we still have work to do to ensure that all young people have access to the education and services they need to prevent unintended pregnancy," continued Kantor.

Positive communication between parents and youth helps establish family and individual values enabling young people to make healthier, safer and better-informed decisions related to sexuality.  Remember, it's not a one-time talk, it's an 18 year (at least!) ongoing conversation!

Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts health centers provide birth control and other preventive health services every day across the state.  We also offer a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for middle and high school age youth as well as a parent education program. Visit www.pplm.org to learn more about our comprehensive sex education programs and our clinic services.


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