Teaching pupils with SEND about relationships

13th January 2017 at 00:00
While the diversity of special educational needs and disabilities means that there is no easy solution for delivering inclusive sex education, there is plenty of advice about where to start, finds Joseph Lee

The first rule of teaching pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) about sex and relationships is that there are no clear rules.

SEND can mean so many different things – from social and emotional disorders, to autism spectrum conditions and physical disabilities – that it would be misleading to suggest that there is a simple solution to making sex and relationships education (SRE) fully inclusive.

But while there might not be any hard and fast rules for delivering SRE to pupils with SEND, there are plenty of examples of best practice from experts working across the range of needs. These provide models for how schools can adapt their existing provision to deliver better SRE to all.

Learning difficulties

Any existing SRE curriculum will need to be simplified, says Peter Imray, a writer and consultant who advises schools on working with severe learning difficulties. He has developed a core curriculum aimed at providing the essentials that everyone needs to know.

“The model that we go for is about teaching on a need-to-know basis, so you’re not making it too complicated,” he explains.

The curriculum comes in six parts: knowing your body; knowing yourself and what makes you different; understanding the difference between private and public; understanding the role of consent in touching and being touched; forming relationships; and sexual intimacy. Students who are likely to be forming relationships will also need lessons in contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, Imray adds.

Jessica Palmer, a teacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey, which teaches students with Down’s syndrome and teens with learning difficulties, uses visual and interactive lessons to tackle subjects like SRE.

For example, Palmer demonstrates how sexually transmitted infections spread with a game involving cups of milk and one containing cornflour and water. The liquids are mixed to represent an exchange of bodily fluids and then an iodine test is used to show how the cornflour “infection” has travelled invisibly through the group.

Autism spectrum conditions

Students with autism are likely to need extra support to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of relationships.

Dr Steven Stagg, a psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University, recently published research based on interviewing students with autism about their experiences of sex education. He found that, in many cases, there simply wasn’t enough of it.

“People with autism felt that sex education was very quick and they needed time to get to grips with it,” Stagg says.

Their difficulties with social understanding also created unique problems. Students with autism said they had been confused by dirty talk from partners, for instance: their very literal understanding meant that they found it hard to comprehend what it was for and how it was intended.

People with autism can also struggle to interpret others’ intentions; many students said they wanted advice on who to trust and how to find the right sort of partner.

These difficulties can leave people with autism vulnerable to exploitation − and mean they can be prone to harassing behaviour themselves if they don’t understand when their attention is unwelcome.

“Some of the people we talked to, I think, were in quite abusive relationships and hadn’t really realised at the time,” Stagg says.

Most students get this type of information from their peer group, so Stagg suggests tackling the social isolation that some students with autism experience by creating positive social environments in which their peers are comfortable with them.

“In autism, researchers are often focused on trying to change the child with autism, trying to put intervention programmes in place to make them realise these problems. But we also need to change the attitude of their classmates,” Stagg argues.

3 Physical disabilities

While students with physical disabilities can be as capable as their peers of understanding the psychological aspects of relationships, they may have different needs when it comes to working out the physical ones.

Helen Goodenough is head of residential services at Treloar’s, a school and college that caters for young people with physical disabilities from the ages of 2 to 25. She recommends starting with the students themselves and asking them what they are comfortable with.

“Usually the young people don’t find it as awkward as the teachers imagine,” she says.

Speaking to the students might reveal challenges that need to be addressed directly. Goodenough says this may be as fundamental as helping them find a way to touch one another affectionately from their wheelchairs.

If in doubt, she adds, teachers should not be afraid to refer students to expert groups. Organisations such as the Spina Bifida Association have dedicated resources for their communities, including information about sex and relationships.


Joseph Lee is a freelance journalist. He tweets @josephlee

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