Sex and relationships is a hot topic in youth work at the moment, and rightly so when we see the mixed messages, confusing feelings and myriad questions that young people are dealing with every day.  But for young people with additional needs this topic is often one that is considered to be irrelevant for them, even though they are often grappling with the same issues as their peers, and more.  Sex and relationships is a topic that is just as relevant for young people with additional needs as for anyone else, so here’s the ‘Additional Needs Blogfather’ guide to how to support the young people you’re working with to get the answers and support they need.

Let’s start with Jasmine’s* story.  Jasmine is now an autistic adult but looking back at her teenage years she recognises how being autistic caused real problems for her regarding sex and relationships; problems that continued into her adult, married, life:

“I have autism.  I was woefully unprepared by family and church for the reality of physical relationships.  As an autistic young person, I didn’t pick up on the subtleties that other people spoke in.  So I didn’t pick any knowledge up from school.  My family, single mum also likely to be autistic and a Catholic turned evangelical, was far too ashamed to speak about such matters.  Church only made sex out to be something to be ashamed of.  Something bad, something to be avoided at all costs.  Rules I could follow but they didn’t prepare me for the emotional battle I would have to fight with myself when I met my boyfriend (now my husband).

There needs to be so much more openness with young people.  Especially those with additional needs.  People think we need to be hidden and protected from all these things.  Actually, we need truth.  Maybe, if someone had chatted with me, I would have been able to save myself for marriage.  Maybe, if someone had allowed me some insight, I wouldn’t have had a poor sexual relationship with my husband for 8 years.  Now improved thanks to my own research and confidence.  Maybe, if someone had told me how precious and wonderful it is to make yourself so vulnerable to your husband and only your husband, I would have felt pride and not shame when I slept with him.  So, so much needs to change.”

We all need to hear what Jasmine is saying here, to learn lessons from her story and to be willing to take action to help prevent her story, and many more like hers, being repeated in our churches through the lives of the young people with additional needs that we work with.  So, what can we do?  Well, we all have the opportunity to help and support young people and their families in this area; the worst thing we can do is to waste that opportunity, to leave it for someone else and to do nothing.  Here then are some positive things that we all can do:

Prepare:  We will all bring our own thoughts and opinions to this topic; we will come at it loaded up with our own baggage.  Before we try to help and support young people with additional needs about sex and relationships, we need to address our own feelings about this first.  Time for a long hard talk with ourselves about what our own biases and positions might be, and how scriptural (or not) they are.  Is there stuff we need to deal with; a proverbial ‘log’ that we need to remove from our own eye before we try to help someone else with the ‘speck’ in theirs?

Plan:  How are we addressing the issues around sex and relationships with the rest of our young people?  What approach are we taking, and how does this fit with our churches teaching in this area?  Can we adapt the approach and teaching to include young people with additional needs?  Maybe we could use social stories to help young people grapple with their questions in this area, to make it as visual and accessible as possible.  Lynn McCann from Reachout ASC has produced a useful guide to creating social stories here: https://www.reachoutasc.com/attachments/article/46/Social%20stories%20SC228.pdf
Think about how teaching can be included regularly, providing help and support in bite sized chunks, little and often rather than one big session and then that’s it done for a year.  This isn’t a ‘tick box’ exercise.

Parents/carers:  Teamwork is vital when helping and supporting young people with additional needs to think about sex and relationships.  Talk to parents/carers and collaborate with them to develop a strategy together.  They will know what is being taught to their young people at school, and what they have talked about (if anything) at home.  Working together means we can use the same messages, language and strategies.

Practitioners:  There are some great resources out there that can really help us as we talk about sex and relationships with young people with additional needs.  Again, Lynn McCann from Reachout ASC has created an excellent, freely downloadable, resource for schools which can easily be applied for church use too: https://www.reachoutasc.com/attachments/article/46/17-21_Autism%20sex.pdf

Other useful sources of great advice and support in this area include Mencap, who provide loads of helpful guidance online for anyone working with young people with learning disabilities for example: https://www.mencap.org.uk/advice-and-support/relationships-and-sex

Prayer:  As with anything that we are doing to help and support young people, we should ensure that all that we do is covered in prayer.  Ask God to give us the right things to say, the right way to communicate with them, the patience we need to work through this together and that the young people will be positively helped and supported as they think about sex and relationships and the life choices that they have to make as a result.

Sex and relationships can be a subject that youth workers shy away from when it comes to young people with additional needs, but it shouldn’t be so.  Every young person deserves the same help and support as they grapple with the myriad of questions, feelings and emotions that this topic evokes.  I hope this gives each of us a starting point for how we can ensure that each young person is given all that they need to make the very best life choices.  As Jasmine reminds us, “There needs to be so much more openness with young people. Especially those with additional needs.”  Let’s help to create that openness together today shall we?

Mark
15th May 2019

*Jasmine is not her real name; story used with permission.

Blog reproduced from an article written by Mark Arnold for Premier Youth & Children’s Work (YCW) magazine, who own the copyright. Check out the June 2019 issue for more great tips and advice for helping young people think positively and healthily about sex and relationships.

Photo: © Friendship Circle