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Sex and the Special Education Classroom

With the blockbuster sequel Sex and the City 2 opening today, sex is on everyone's mind. Unfortunately, when it comes to sex education and students with special needs, it's not as glamorous as the four ladies in the movie make it out to be. Often, while cognitive, social, and emotional development may be delayed, the sexual development of children with special needs is right on target. This leaves parents and educators to explain the birds and bees in a manner that students can understand and provide rules that they are ready to use.

Remember that teaching children without special needs can be awkward and confusing. For students with special needs, teaching them about puberty, privacy, and sexual interactions is a matter of safety. It is our responsibility to inform and guide them to make responsible and safe choices as they grow older.

Use these tips as you begin talking to your child or student about his sexual development.

Avoid slang words Use proper terms for body parts and actions. This will prevent confusion in many situations and sets the tone for mature discussions later on.

Discuss privacyBe very clear about what things can be discussed or done in private versus in public. Make it black and white by saying "You cannot do that here but you can do that in the bathroom." Even something as simple as a female student fixing her stockings needs to be addressed and redirected to a private place, such as the bathroom or a bedroom. For male students, using a urinal is a common skill that needs to be taught and reinforced. Help children become aware of their bodies and their surroundings to avoid embarrassing and possibly unsafe situations.

Think about short term and long term scenariosThink about how your discussions will affect the child now, in his teen years, and adulthood. Some children with special needs have difficulty generalizing skills and some, in fact, overgeneralize. Think about how he will handle sexual topics in the home, at school, on the job, and out in public. What may be OK for the home may not be OK at work.

Keep the team on the same pageWhile it is obviously not appropriate to be running around school or town discussing a child's sexual development, it is important that all professional staff and adult family members be on the same page when it comes to educating children about this very sensitive topic. Teachers, alert parents prior to the introduction of a lesson and parents, bring concerns or thoughts to the teacher right away. Everyone must know the "rules" you are teaching the child so they can be reinforced across all settings. This is also important for educators to understand and respect families' cultural, religious, and personal preferences or beliefs. Don't assume it's OK to discuss something with a student without first discussing it with his parents.

RespectThe single most important thing to remember when speaking about children's sexual development is to respect the child. While this is a difficult time for you, imagine the confusion and stress your child may be feeling about all the changes she is going through. Be respectful of her as an individual and a young adult. If you handle all situations and discussions with respect, you can't go wrong.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jennifer is an educational consultant who works with families and educators to establish healthy and productive routines in the home and school. Adapting behavior management techniques she implemented for years as a special educator, she helps parents and teachers adopt these tools to fit their unique needs and priorities. Jennifer also speaks to parent and education groups on current topics in education and children's health. Visit www.jennifercerbasi.com