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As Options for Sexual Health puts it, sexual health education is really “all about choices.” When people have knowledge, they are empowered to make decisions, stay safe, and build healthy relationships. For individuals with diverse abilities, this access to this knowledge is an essential part of leading a good and full life out in community.
In this episode of Good For All, we spoke to three of posAbilities sexual health educators about LINK!, a sexual health curriculum for children, youth and adults with diverse abilities. Read on to discover some key learnings from the LINK! program and how this knowledge leads to greater fulfillment, safety and citizenship.
Meet posAbilities’ Sexual Health Educators
Darren Frisk is a team manager and registered behavior technician who leads some of posAbilities’ group residential services. Darren shared a personal reason for wanting to become a sexual health educator: “When I went to school there wasn’t inclusive sexual health education. As a gay man, I often felt that I was left out and that the curriculum wasn’t adapted for me. I wanted to make sure that everyone that we offered the curriculum to felt like they fit in and didn’t feel left out.”
Children and youth who have a developmental disability, intellectual disability or identify as neuro-diverse, often find it difficult to receive sexual health education that is sufficiently adapted to meet their needs. In fact, they may not receive that education at all.
Sherry Nassrin, a behaviour consultant with Laurel Behaviour Support Services, saw the need for sexual health education in the youth Laurel supports. “Most of the youth that we support are not in a sexual health class when it’s offered,” she says. “Often, parents will tell us that they’re just not comfortable or don’t know what to teach.”
Becky Molly, also a behaviour consultant, is Laurel’s clinical supervisor in the Okanagan. She saw the same need in the adults they support. “They had questions,” she says. “They were trying to get information and resources on their own.”
An Inclusive Curriculum for All Ages
Creating the LINK! curriculum was a way to address that need. LINK! is offered for children, youth, and for adults, with slight differences in the curriculum for the different ages. The children’s curriculum focuses on body science, as well as things like puberty, self-care, navigating relationships, and types of touch. For youth and adults, the curriculum also covers topics including online safety, pornography, and different types of sexuality.
In addition to filling in gaps in people’s knowledge, it was also essential that the curriculum addressed gender and sexual diversity. Studies have shown that individuals on the autism spectrum are more likely to identity under the LGBTQ+ umbrella and more likely to experience gender dysphoria compared to the general population. When teaching LINK!, the educators use gender neutral and inclusive language and welcome discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation—discussions that some participants might not be having with other people in their lives.
Culture values and beliefs might also change the way families and individuals approach the topic of sexuality. Knowing this, the LINK! team always keeps to focus on people’s right to access information and the importance of having knowledge to make safe decisions. “Our role is not to is not to try to put our beliefs and values in other people,” says Darren, “it’s to empower people to have information and education.”
posAbilities’ educators encourage parents to continue the conversation at home. After each session, they share a take-home resource with the key points from that day’s discussion, which is a good jumping-off point.
Consent is one of the most important topics the curriculum covers. Though many of the groups that Sherry has helped teach have a great understanding of consent, she still sees gaps in people’s knowledge. “One of the biggest gaps that we have seen is just understanding the importance of ongoing consent for every action,” she says. “So, I hugged you once, it doesn’t mean I can always give you a hug.” For other individuals who need support with personal hygiene and are always being touched for support with care, they may not realize that people always need their consent to touch their body.
The difference between public and private is another essential topic, especially when supporting individuals to do what they want in community. When people don’t have a clear understanding of what behaviours are acceptable in public spaces versus in private, it can cause trouble.
“When people have information, they make decisions based on readiness,” Becky says. “But when we leave people without information, they make decisions based on opportunity. In cases where an individual has engaged in behavior of a sexual nature that has intersected with the law, in a lot of cases those individuals were making decisions based on opportunity and weren’t coming from a place of readiness.”
Difficult Questions and Readiness
On the other hand, some parents may be concerned that their child isn’t yet ready for certain topics. While subjects like consent and public vs. private are important for all ages, that concern about giving too much information to soon is usually unwarranted.
“We know from our schooling and research,” Sherry says, “that people absorb the information that they’re ready to absorb…what they’ll retain is what really what they’re ready for.”
“There’s this misconception,” Becky says, “that if people have information about sexual health that they’re going to do all of the sex things and that’s just that’s just not the case.”
If there’s one piece of advice the LINK! team has for family members and caregivers, it’s that you don’t have to know all the answers—but it’s still important to have conversations about sexuality. Resources like the Sex Sense line (a service provided by Options for Sexual Health) are a great way to get the information you need to answers those difficult questions.
For more details about LINK! and how to get started, visit www.laurelbc.ca/link.
In BC, Options for Sexual Health is a great resource for information and services related to inclusive and accessible sexual health care and education. You can access information and resources through their Sex Sense phone line or on their website.
posAbilities is also a partner of Real Talk, a program which encourages more open, honest conversations about sex and relationships. Real Talk hosts hangouts where adults with cognitive disabilities can listen to conversations on dating and relationships. Participants can also ask questions of their own and get answers from a Certified Sexual Health Educator. Plus, the Real Talk website has a library of blog posts and videos on topics like consent, safer sex, and meeting people online and more.