Sexuality Education for Individuals with Autism and Developmental Disabilities


In this video, Dr. Achey discusses puberty as it relates to children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities. With planning and proper support, parents and health care providers can help adolescents navigate their changing bodies. As a reminder, each of these training sessions are brief and should not be considered a comprehensive source on the specific topics covered. Each family is encouraged to determine what information and activities are appropriate for their child.

Puberty is a normal and exciting part of growing up that everyone goes through at different times. A child’s maturity will vary and a child’s readiness to learn about topics related to their sexuality and sexual development will be unique for each young person too. You will need to develop a plan to explain what puberty is and what a child can expect as they enter into and develop through puberty. Inform children about the changes that will take place when they begin puberty. It is important to remember, every body has its own timeline. The experts do not all agree but it is said that, on average, puberty begins for females between the ages of 8 and 13 and for males between the ages of 10 and 15. It usually takes about 3-4 years to get through puberty. The age at which some begin to show signs of puberty, such as pubic hair, breast buds, and hair under the arms is gradually decreasing, so children need this information sooner. It is best to plan to share resources early and often so as to discuss the changes before they occur so the child is not scared, confused or frightened by their changing body and mental state. 

When working with an adolescent with an intellectual disability you may have to try out several methods for explaining the processes of maturation and puberty. Using anatomically correct dolls will allow your child to touch and feel the differences in development. Another strategy is to use photos of your child from different stages of their life. Use full-length, fully clothed photos in the same location to show how their bodies have developed and grown. Paste the pictures on a picture board to help the child to see the changes that they have already gone through and continue to develop as they go through puberty. Showing pictures of siblings or even yourself as you grew up is also another way to illustrate the changes your child is and will be experiencing. The more resources you can use to aid in your discussions, the better.

As an adolescent the changing mental state may be more complex than the changing physical aspects of puberty. If an adolescent is the first or the last female in class to develop breasts, that is a challenge. Getting a period when you are not prepared is a challenge. If an adolescent male gets an erection or their voice cracks in front of the class, that is a challenge. If all the girls are taller than you as a male, it can be a challenge. Uncontrollable mood swings for adolescents can also be a challenge. And when pimples and body odor are added to this complex stage of development along with a limited ability to understand the changes, it is easy to understand why puberty can be such a tough time for adolescents.