Developmentally delayed teens are at a much higher risk of sexual assault than their non-delayed peers; the numbers are both depressing and well-validated.Despite the high rates of sexual assault in the teenage population, developmentally delayed teens are at even greater risk. The reason is simple: they are seen as an easy target, and there are predators out there looking to take advantage of them.
“Developmental delay” is a vague term (and is starting to become replaced by the phrase “intellectually disability”), encompassing Down Syndrome, autism, and other conditions that may be genetic or acquired. The range of developmental delay spans from teens who cannot communicate in any fashion with their caregivers, to articulate teens who plan to graduate high school and seek higher education or employment. Obviously, discussion and education for a delayed teen is not a one-size-fits-all task.
For the most delayed teens, unfortunately, there is no way to give them information to help protect themselves. It’s vital that anyone who looks after a delayed teen has had a thorough background check, either through a facility or when you hire them directly. Teens who go to public schools are cared for by employees with in-depth, although not infallible, surveys of their background. If your teen attends a private school or day care facility, sit down with the director and ask about how they ensure the safety of their clientele. Your teen should be spending most of their day in a group activity with one or more staff present. Having trust in whoever works with your teen can help relieve your mind, but it’s also important to keep a keen eye out for something that feels wrong.
If your teen can communicate, you may be able to provide helpful knowledge and skills. Of course, you have to modify this advice to fit your teen’s level of cognition and understanding. A good rule of thumb is: if your teen asks questions, answer them. If your teen seems to be getting confused or frustrated, simplify.
Any teen who can grasp the concept should receive an education on sexuality appropriate to their level. Sit down with a book like Where Do I Come From? and discuss the basics of bodies and sexuality. They should learn about male and female organs, what sex, pregnancy, and childbirth involve, all about privacy and personal space, and that it’s normal to feel sexual feelings.
Most developmentally delayed teens will have strong sexual urges, like their non-delayed peers, and society in general is uncomfortable with this. People tend to think of delayed teens and adults as either “innocent”, with no sexuality whatsoever, or fear their sexual urges as “uncontrollable.” Like non-delayed teens, in the vast majority of cases, neither is true. Even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, the best way to discuss sexual matters with developmentally delayed teens is to approach their sexuality in a calm and informed manner.
Delayed teens should know that nobody is allowed to touch them sexually without their consent, and they are never allowed to touch anyone sexually without the other person’s consent. Tell them that if somebody tries, you want them to say a resounding no (delayed teens are often taught to obey those with authority, so stress that it’s okay to say no in this situation) and tell a trusted adult immediately. If no trusted adults are around, they should run and/ or call 911 if possible. Encouraged them to tell someone, even if it’s a secret, or they’re worried they’ll get into trouble. Be clear that your teen will never get in trouble for telling someone about their concerns.
Some parents are tempted to describe all sexual contact as “bad” for their teen. Understandably, they are nervous about their teen getting into a sexual situation. However, being touched in a sexual way can feel good, and if a teen doesn’t know that about this, they may not stop a situation because it doesn’t feel like the terrible thing they’ve been told about. Giving your teen a realistic view of sex can help them make healthy decisions, now and in the future.
Of course, some developmentally delayed teens will want to consent to sexual contact with someone. The question of whether a developmentally delayed teen can consent to sexual activity is very tricky, and obviously a lot depends on the level of delay. Encourage your teen to come to you with questions about sex, and tell you if they are thinking of starting a sexual relationship with someone. It won’t be an easy discussion if this happens, but it will be a valuable one.
A few resources: This book is written for parents of Down Syndrome children, but has good information for anyone. This short article is a good introduction. This longer piece is written for educators, but might be useful for parents as well, and the multiple links at the end are to great organizations that deal with this kind of issue. If you have access to Seattle Children’s Hospital, many providers in Adolescent Medicine have skill and experience working with developmentally delayed teens and their families around issues of sexuality.
What questions, success stories, or good advice do you have?
About Jen Brown, RN, BSN
Teens never cease to amaze me with their strength, creativity, and new perspectives! Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed helping teens and their parents tackle health concerns and navigate social issues. Nursing is my second career; my first degree was in biology from Carleton College, and a few years later I went to the University of Virginia for their Second Degree Nursing Program. Recently I began a graduate program at the University of Washington.