Few mothers talk about sexuality with their child with ID

By Andrew Jahoda, PhD
University of Glasgow

Many young people and adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) live at home with their parents while others are supported by paid staff. They often spend more time under the supervision of adults than their non-disabled peers. However, asking for information about sexual matters can be embarrassing for young people; and as a result there is a natural reluctance to discuss intimate matters with parents, family members and staff.

What did you do in your research?
The aim of the research was to talk to mothers about their experiences, their attitudes, and behavior related to sexuality and sex education for their children with ID. We hoped to highlight the challenges these mothers face in talking about sexual matters with their children, as well as identify ways to better support parents and carers. A questionnaire was given to mothers with a son or daughter with ID and mothers whose child had no disability to compare the experiences.

What did you find out?
Most mothers wanted to talk to their offspring about sex and agreed this was important, but only a few mothers of children with ID had the discussion. Mothers of children with ID differed from mothers of children without ID in the following ways:
  • Often believed their son or daughter were not as interested in developing sexual relationships and had fewer sexual feelings.
  • Believed their son or daughter had fewer chances to have a girlfriend or boyfriend or to start a sexual relationship.
  • Delayed talking about sex with their son or daughter, as they felt it was less urgent.
  • Found it more challenging to know when to talk about sex because their child did not ask questions about it.
  • When sex was talked about, they focused on appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviors.

What are the take-home messages?
Difficulties faced by young people with ID in accessing sexual knowledge can lead to confusion and distress at a critical stage of development. Therefore, a more proactive approach to sex education is required to help young people adjust to their sexuality. Families may find it difficult to ask for help and find accessible information related to sexual awareness. Professionals should be encouraged to be proactive about talking with families.

To learn more about these findings contact
Andrew Jahoda.

Full Journal Article
Pownall, J. D., Jahoda, A., & Hastings, R. P. (2012). Sexuality and Sex Education of Adolescents with Intellectual Disability: Mothers' Attitudes, Experiences, and Support Needs. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 50(2), 140–154.