In 2016, a team from Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) in Massachusetts met at nearby Josiah Quincy Upper School (JQUS), a public high school, to give health and hygiene talks tailored to the school’s special needs students. Afterwards, school personnel approached them and asked if they could perhaps expand those talks to include birth control and pregnancy. Looking for ways to tailor their informal sex education curricula to match the needs of these students, that team realized that there were few to no sexual-education curricula designed for students with developmental delays.

It’s a common assumption to presume that “special ed” students don’t needs sex ed.

“I remember the mother of one of my patients who believed her intellectually disabled teenager wasn’t interested in dating, even though she knew he had crushes on girls in class,” said Laura Grubb, a pediatrician at TUSM and a member of the team working to custom-tailor a sexual health course for students like that teenage boy.

Our propensity to label intellectual disabilities with younger ages—for example, “she has the mind of a three-year-old”—leads to an assumption that every part of their psychology is somehow in stasis as an actual child. But they are not asexual, and like any youth, they learn about relationships and desires from their peers and their own bodies. Without education on the matter, whether from a class, their parents, or an informal arrangement with a doctor, they won’t have the resources to make informed decisions. This is just one reason why sex education is important for students with disabilities.

Aside from their own choices, intellectually disabled adolescents are at a high risk of sexual exploitation. The data collected by Grubb and her team suggests that they’re up to seven times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than their neurotypical peers. And many, raised without adult relationships ever discussed, lacked even the vocabulary to report the abuse.

“Through the classes, we emphasize key principles about boundaries, appropriate behavior in public and in private, and what’s healthy in a relationship,” Grubb said.

Everyone, from young children to teenagers facing different challenges, needs to educated in consent, in the safest practices for their own body, and in how to have a healthy relationship. Many come by that information naturally. For those who do not or cannot, it is vital to be taught, and without stigma.

“I’m just super grateful that we have this program,” said JQUS special education science teacher Mark Knapp. “It fills a lack in sex-ed for kids who are incredibly vulnerable.”

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