Sex and relationships are hot topics 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. The topic of sex and relationships is just as relevant for young people with additional needs as for anyone else, so here’s the ‘Additional Needs Blogfather’ guide on how to support the young people you’re working with to get the answers and support they need.
Jasmine* is now an autistic adult, but looking back at her teenage years she recognizes how being autistic caused real problems for her regarding sex and relationships, problems that continued into her married adult 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 eight years. [Our relationship is] 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, 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 the lives of the young people with additional needs in our churches. So what can we do? 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 are some positive things we all can do:
Prepare: We will all bring our own thoughts and opinions—and our own baggage—to this topic. Before we try to help and support young people with additional needs, we need to address our own feelings about sex and relationships first. Preparing might include examining our our own biases and beliefs, and whether or not those beliefs are scriptural—or not. Do we need to remove the proverbial log from our own eye before we try to help someone else with the speck in theirs?
Plan: How are we addressing sex and relationships with the rest of our young people? What approach are we taking, and how does this fit with our church’s teaching? Can we adapt the approach and teaching to include young people with additional needs? An option is to use social stories to help young people grapple with their questions, to make discussion as visual and accessible as possible. Lynn McCann from Reachout ASC has produced a useful free 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, rather than one big session, without further discussion for a year. Talking about sex and relationships shouldn’t be a checking the 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 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 that can really help as we talk about sex and relationships among 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, linked above. Other useful sources of advice and support include Mencap, which offers helpful guidance online for working with young people with additional needs: 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 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.
For young people with additional needs, sex and relationships can be a subject that youth workers and parents shy away from, 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?
*Jasmine is not her real name; story used with permission.
Blog reproduced with permission from an article written by Mark Arnold for Premier Youth & Children’s Work (YCW) magazine, who own the copyright.
Mark Arnold is the Additional Needs Ministry Director for Urban Saints Church, Luton, Bedfordshire, UK. Follow his writing at https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.com