The importance of RSE for disabled and neurodiverse young people

smiling young person

Lucy Dabner and Amber Newman-Clark are Education and Wellbeing Specialists at Brook, and are in the Brook staff working group on RSE for young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. In this blog, they talk about the importance of inclusive and fair RSE for disabled and neurodiverse young people.

Working at Brook, we always talk about sex and relationships from a sex positive angle. It’s how we believe young people learn about sex best, after all, how are we to know what is unhealthy, harmful or worrying without knowing about healthy, positive and pleasurable experiences?  

Unfortunately, this is not always what we see in our everyday experience training professionals, working with parents and answering young people’s questions. There is also a wealth of other research that shows disabled and neurodiverse young people are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to their access to high quality RSE, and healthy, fulfilled sexualities and relationships. 

It is vital that we get RSE right for disabled and neurodiverse young people, and at Brook, we want to help lead that change. 

The positive news is: there has already been a clear shift in the conversation about RSE for disabled and neurodiverse young people. For a long time, this education was just not happening. We often heard comments like “you don’t need to learn about this”, or “you’ll learn about this when you’re ready”, and some young people were even being removed from our sessions for out of the assumption that RSE was not relevant, or may even be inappropriate.  

This is thankfully much less common now. Since the arrival of the Mandatory RSE curriculum in 2020 and the increase in conversation around RSE in practice, we have seen a noticeable shift to a place where many people acknowledge that RSE is vital for keeping young people safe and healthy, helping to prepare them for adult life and contributing to safeguarding all young people. But it is here that we realise we still have a way to go! 

It can be extremely limiting when we come at RSE from a fixed perspective: that its primary focus is to teach risks and to safeguard ‘vulnerable’ young people. 

This perspective often assumes that disabled and neurodiverse young people only need sex education because they are vulnerable to abuse or exploitation, and ignores the fact that disabled and neurodiverse young people have the same rights to a pleasurable and happy sexual relationship, with both themselves and any chosen partners, just as much as anyone else.

Over the years, we have had many conversations with concerned parents, carers, teachers and other professionals, who all care deeply about the safety and wellbeing of their young people, but sometimes hold misconceptions that can in turn limit the intimate and sexual lives of disabled and neurodiverse people. There are three main categories of assumptions, misconceptions or prejudices that can be particularly damaging for disabled and neurodiverse young people: 

  • Infantilising –  Where someone’s potential (in this case their potential to be a sexual being) is underestimated and they are regularly treated as a child. An example we have seen in practice is when offering free condoms in a college. A disabled young woman expressed interest in signing up to get free condoms, and was halfway through a consultation with us when a very shocked looking member of staff hurried her away saying “what will your mum think?” This young person was 19 and sexually active, but was prevented from accessing the contraception they needed, due to the false perception of someone responsible for their care and wellbeing.  
  • Fetishising – A fetish is having a strong sexual response to an object, behavior or person. The impact this can have on the lives of disabled and neurodiverse young people is two-fold. There is a significant amount of content online, in television and movies that fetishises disabled people in particular, and this can feed into the discriminatory assumption that disabled people do not have meaningful relationships in the same way as non-disabled people. Secondly, this can also mean that it is assumed that anyone who is attracted to, or in a relationship with a disabled or neurodiverse person is only doing so out of some form of fetish. This is a very damaging assumption to make, and can prevent people from having the happy and fulfilled relationships and sex lives that they deserve.  
  • Over-sexualising – Where someone assumes something is sexual or is sexually motivated when it is not. A good example of this is masturbation, which is most often assumed to be sexually motivated, however we know that some people touch themselves as a comfort or for sensory stimulation. When the behaviour of disabled and neurodiverse young people is over-sexualised, there is often undue concern about the young person, and this can also mean that their true needs are being ignored. At Brook, we have developed a traffic light tool which supports professionals to more accurately assess behaviours we might see as sexualised.

With these three things in mind, we often find that the discussion around sex and disability is somewhat extreme, either over-protective or over-sexualising, with very little balance. 

We believe that good quality RSE which is accessible and inclusive provides us with a powerful tool to challenge these negative assumptions and improve the lives of ALL young people. 

Here are some top tips for developing truly inclusive RSE practice: 

  • DO include and represent disabled and neurodiverse people in the scenarios, examples and literature you use. 
  • Don’t make assumptions about the sexual orientation or gender identity of any young person.
  • Don’t make assumptions about how someone’s disability or neurodiversity might affect their sex life. 
  • DO always assume a young person has the capacity to consent unless shown otherwise. If a young person has demonstrated a lack of capacity, they still have a right to access as much RSE as possible (please refer to the Mental Capacity Act 2005 for more). 
  • DO challenge over-sexualisation, fetishisation and infantilisation wherever you see or hear it. 
  • DO assess a young person’s RSE needs on an individual basis. 
  • DO teach all young people about puberty before it happens. Everyone has the right to know about changes in their body before they experience them.  

At Brook, we are fighting for a society where all young people are free to to take control of their sexual health, enjoy healthy relationships and explore their identities. Improving RSE for all young people is a vital part of that. 

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