An article about how parents and educators can teach neurodivergent children love as a life skill.
My early days in special education were a rollercoaster. I was excited, terrified, overconfident, and underprepared. All of my supervisors and trainers had instilled in me the importance of building student independence and involvement in their community and education. To that end, I was extremely focused on building essential life skills (e.g., communication, money management, cooking, etc.). I was proud of the work I was doing and excited by the growth and independence I saw in the individuals with whom I worked.
Then one day, a female student came up to me and whispered in my ear: “Guess what?” I leaned in and whispered back: “What?” She said, with a smile on her face: “I have a crush,” and pointed to a boy nearby. My face got red. I stared at her feeling embarrassed and uncertain and responded quickly with: “I don’t need to know that,” before turning away.
Over 15 years later, I still go back to that moment and cringe at my response. I was so focused on building life skills that I was unprepared to teach the more intimate and equally important “other” life skills. That moment helped bring a simple yet crucial awareness to my practice: love is a life skill.
The importance of teaching love skills
I wish I could go back in time and say to that student: “Tell me more!” rather than abruptly shutting down the conversation. For far too long, conversations around sexuality, love, and the right to love have excluded neurodiverse individuals.
Social stigma and fear have perpetuated barriers to educational opportunities, leaving many individuals unprepared and ill-equipped to explore healthy relationships on their own. This has resulted in high numbers of neurodiverse individuals experiencing social isolation, mental health concerns, and sexual exploitation and victimization throughout their lifetimes.
Through more education and heaps of experience, I’ve learned that while teaching essential life skills enhances independence, they don’t always build happiness or teach the basic aspects of loving yourself and loving others. Close human relationships including love and friendship are essential to a person’s quality of life and overall well-being. Developing life skills that facilitate partnership, choice, community, and relationships are just as important as the life skills of laundry or cooking. It is through these “other” life skills that a person can foster self-love and companionship with others.
It is easy to talk about the other life skills, but how do you teach them? The answer is comprehensive sexuality education. Sexuality education reduces risk and encourages positive self-expression and self-determination.
It encompasses so much more than discussions on pleasure and sexual identity. Comprehensive sexuality education includes human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, and sexual health (SIECUS, 2004). Beyond these domains, sexuality education helps individuals establish a foundation of self-confidence and self-esteem.
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Tips for supporting access to information
- Provide sexuality education at home
Parents are the number one educators. You can use natural opportunities such as watching television or reading books.
Jump in with open-ended questions like: “What do you think about…?”, or “What would you do if….?” or “How do you feel when you see…?” based on what you just saw or read. These questions allow you to see what your child already knows about the topic and provide further information and clarification.
It is easy for kids (and you) to get embarrassed. Keep reminding them that it is ok, there is nothing to be embarrassed about, and that you are there to help them. The more your child trusts your openness and honesty, the more your child will come to you with his/her questions and concerns. Conversations about sexuality education may seem scary, I know. But it is through these conversations that your child will learn safety, advocacy, and a sense of belonging.
- Encourage questions
When I turned away from my student, I unfortunately gave her the impression that her words did not matter, her desires were uncomfortable, and even trusted adults did not want to talk to her about her feelings. Since then, I have learned to lean into these moments. If your child or student comes to you, first and foremost embrace the opportunity. For example, if your child tells you: “I have a crush,” you can say, “How do you feel about that?” to start probing what your child may be trying to ask or tell you. When a child brings up a question or statement, it usually means that there are more questions or concerns behind it.
- Find a class
Parents are the primary educators, but it doesn’t hurt to bring in reinforcements. Pediatricians and disability organizations often have sexuality education recommendations or classes available. These classes will provide another safe space for your child to learn and ask questions. Classes may also provide an opportunity for broader peer relationships and community for you and your child.
- Be aware of your body language and tone
Be aware of how your face or body responds to the questions or statements from your child. You may want to interrupt or correct your child, but doing so may accidentally shut down the conversation. Keep your facial expressions encouraging (smile and nod) and your body open to your child (not turned away or distracted). This is the time to put the phone away, turn off the television, and face your child. Grab some popcorn and make the environment comfortable, safe, and even fun.
- Overcome your fears
You need information just as much as your child. There are resources and classes that can help you overcome your fears. Reach out to local sexuality educators, pediatrician offices, and disability organizations for information on groups (or classes) you can join.
- Professionals can do this, too
Even though the information above is geared towards parents, professionals in the field can follow the same advice. Be open; find resources and experts to support your students’ questions and concerns. Be mindful of not inserting your own values or attitudes about sexuality into the learning space. I always recommend finding a mentor who has experience in teaching sexuality education to support and supervise your work.
Teaching life skills can and should include skills of daily living and sexuality education. You as a parent and professional should not need to choose just one area of focus. Both curricula provide a pathway for an independent and fulfilling life.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard parents say “I just want my child to be happy.” Happiness goes hand in hand with equitable access to information. It is difficult to achieve happiness if your life is focused on your limitations. It is difficult to achieve happiness when knowledge is withheld. Information leads to empowerment which leads to agency, and that agency facilitates choice and control over your life.
National Guidelines Task Force, Sex Information, & Education Council of the US. (1991). Guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education: Kindergarten-12th grade. SIECUS.
This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism