Recently, the topic of sexual orientation was discussed in detail in the post, "The Battle of Sexuality: Helping Those With Disabilities Understand Their Sexuality.” However, overall sexual health involves much more than simply understanding how sexuality impacts those with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDDs). Rather than focusing solely on sexuality, true sexual health must include an in-depth discussion of the health benefits of sex, appropriate sexual education, the use of contraceptives and sexual violence.
How Does Sex Improve Overall Health?
Adults with ASDs or IDDs face many challenges in becoming adults, and sex represents a struggle for many of those with disabilities. The sheer amount of stress in transitioning to adulthood cannot be overstated, and those with disabilities need a safe, healthy way of expressing their emotions. Unfortunately, sex is often considered taboo and not consistent with overall health. In reality, the health benefits of positive, intimate relationships and sex far outweigh the negative social context sex plays among those with disabilities.
Sex has been linked to better cognitive functioning, increased mood, stronger immune systems, longer lifespan and less malaise, reports Healthline. In addition, sex can help counteract the negative effects of stress and anxiety. Those with IDDs or autism spectrum disorders “ASDs” often have high levels of anxiety and stress, especially social anxiety, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine, but sex can have a dramatic, positive impact on quality of life.
When Is Sexual Education Appropriate for People with IDDs and ASDs?
Every adolescent deserves the opportunity to learn what sexual health means in their lives. Most importantly, successful sexual education begins shortly before or near the age of puberty. Furthermore, people with ASDs or IDDs usually require more time to process the information presented during sexual education, reports the National Autistic Society.
The amount of time required to explain normal bodily changes to expect during puberty to people with ASDs can be substantial. However, this is not a free-pass to forgo sexual education. The changes that occur during puberty, such as deepening of the male voice, the growth of body or facial hair and the onset of the first menstruation, otherwise known as the menarche, can be frightening to all, but the significant changes can be even more stressful for those with disabilities.
The education and explanation of sexual health should also focus on the role of privacy versus publicity in sexual health. While this may seem like an obvious component, it can help to improve sexual awareness and understanding among people with disabilities.
Masturbation is another taboo topic that comes up in sexual education. Masturbation is not unhealthy, nor does it cause any known negative health problems. Explain what masturbation is and why it is a private, personal matter.
Contraceptives and Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
While complete abstinence is the only 100-percent effective way of preventing unplanned pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted disease (STDs), it is quickly becoming an impractical approach to sexual health in society. Abstinence-only sexual education implies shame or punishment follows sexual activity prior to marriage.
In fact, President Obama proposed cutting federal funding for all abstinence-only sexual education programs in the 2017 budget, citing previous studies in the past decade on the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education, reports The New York Times.
Meanwhile, more than 250,000 young people, including those with ASDs or IDDs, between the ages of 15 and 24 were diagnosed with STDs in 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This includes Instead, sexual education should be proactive in providing solutions to encourage sexual health.
For example, the use of male and female condoms should be explained, and some adolescents may inquire about the use of birth control to prevent pregnancy. This can be an especially complicated topic, and those with ASDs or IDDs must understand the difference between sexual consent and sexual violence, including unwanted contact, manipulation and sexual assault.
Sexual Violence and Sexual Health
Every person has the right to say, “No.” This concept permeates society, but for individuals with autism or intellectual disabilities, the right to refuse unwanted sexual contact may go unheard, asserts the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). More importantly, intimate partner violence, such as physical or verbal abuse, increases the risk of sexual violence, especially among victims with IDDs or ASDs.
People with disabilities need to understand what consent is and is not. In other words, consent is not implied due to the inability to fully communicate. For example, an adolescent with difficult speaking still has the right to refuse sexual contact. In addition, an explanation of sexual harassment should also be included in sexual education. Unfortunately, much of society remains blind to sexual harassment, but by providing examples of sexual harassment, you can help to change that tune.
Putting It All Together
Sexuality is one of the fundamental parts of life. While the conversation can be difficult to have, sex is not a taboo topic. You need to help the individuals you serve understand their sexuality and how it relates to sexual health. More importantly, you must recognize that they have equal rights to privacy and to engage in sexual activity, including masturbation. A positive outlook on sexual health helps to break down barriers to better quality of life and standards of care.
If you can help the people you serve learn what to expect during puberty, what constitutes healthy sexual practices, including the ability to consent or refuse, and how to prevent unplanned pregnancy and contracting or transmitting STDs, you can improve the overall health of their community.