Sexuality and the special-needs child

Sexuality and the special-needs child

Workshops at the JCC on the Palisades

It’s not easy for parents to speak with children of any age about sexuality. But when the children have special needs, it may be even more challenging, says Shelley Levy, director of the Guttenberg Center for Special Services at the JCC on the Palisades.

To help parents face this challenge, on Nov. 15 the center will offer two workshops presented by Mary Greenfield, sexuality trainer for the New York-based Adults and Children with Learning and Developmental Disabilities.

The Guttenberg Center is “based on the premise that individuals of all ages should be provided with programming geared to meet their needs,” said Levy, adding that the center serves more than 500 participants, at least 100 of whom are teens.

The JCC on the Palisades’ Guttenberg Center provides respite and recreational programs for more than 500 people, including about 100 teens.

The facility meets a wide range of specific needs, including autism spectrum disorder; Asperger’s syndrome; communication and learning differences; moderate cognitive, intellectual, and neurological challenges; and developmental disabilities.

Levy pointed out that center programs are considered “recreational and respite programs. There’s always a strong focus on communication and social skills, but we’re not a school,” she said, noting that the staff recently determined that sexuality training would be a valuable skill to add to existing offerings, “to go along with self-grooming and health” modules. The staff itself has already participated in training classes with Greenfield.

The parent workshops will be split into two sessions: one for parents of younger children, ages 5 to 15, and one for those with children between the ages of 16 and 20.

For those with younger children, “it will help build the foundation for healthy sexuality and helping children deal with sexuality issues,” said Levy.

“Parents go through many things as they see their teens entering young adulthood. We’re trying to help them find a way to communicate with their kids to keep them safe, but also to help [their children] recognize that what they’re going through is very typical.”

For some special-needs children, she said, “there is a disconnect between their behaviors and their ability to express themselves in an age-appropriate way.”

The workshops are “extremely important because they come at a juncture in time where we have to look at [the youngsters] as young men and women first, [dealing] with the reality of them transitioning into adulthood. We need to prepare them as best we can.”

The morning session, she said, “will explore proactive ways to address sexual education with children with special needs. The goal will be to help parents provide a foundation for their child’s later experiences.”

The afternoon session will focus on helping teens 16 and above “deal with their developing sexual interests, safety, and relationships,” covering how to approach the topic with the teen, sexual hygiene, understanding privacy, and sexual safety.

According to Greenfield, “an important part [of this effort] is to translate the information into ways that can be understood” by the teenagers.

“Parents of special-needs children have to be much clearer about the message they want to give” regarding issues such as boundaries and privacy, she said. They must try to do some “future thinking – thinking about their children as adults and about how they want them to act as adults.”

She noted that the parents of younger children may be called upon to explain issues such as puberty. When that occurs, she said, they should “start with what is going on inside the body, not with the sperm and egg piece.”

Parents must also spell out what many consider the “unwritten rules” of social behavior, such as “who can you touch, and where.” With older children, the need for such discussions may arise when the children talk about dating or are beginning to flirt, she said, noting that she is called most often by the parents of teenagers.

The question is, “Where is my child right now? What information is useful? Be specific.”

At the Nov. 15 session, Greenfield will answer parents’ questions and talk about resources available to them, such as a recent book geared to the parents of children with Down syndrome.

For further information about the workshops, call Levy at (201) 408-1489.

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