Developmental Disabilities Leadership Forum: Leadership Perspectives in Developmental Disability: An on-line Journal for Consumers, Professionals, Family and Friends
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Volume 3 , Issue 1 Date: Spring, 2003 Topic: Expectations Through Life's Passages

Supporting Young Adults with Developmental Disabilities

by Deborah A. Taylor, RN, CDDN

Approximately eight years ago, two of my colleagues came up with the idea of teaching social skills to individuals with developmental disabilities. They generated a list of topics for the group participants to talk about. As the group started to meet, the participants quickly redirected the focus of the conversation to meet their interests. They wanted to discuss the relationships in their lives including relationships with their parents, siblings, housemates, fellow employees, girlfriends and boyfriends and support care staff. It became obvious to my colleagues that the participants of the group would benefit from some relationship and sexuality training.

When one of my colleagues approached me and asked if I would be interested in teaching relationship and sexuality education to the program participants, I willingly obliged. We began the process by researching materials on this topic. Our research included (and continues to involve) attending numerous workshops and seminars on topics addressing relationships, sexuality and evaluating consent for individuals with developmental disabilities. We also attended some workshops that were presented by staff working at Planned Parenthood. We conducted an extensive literature review of published articles, papers and books as well.

Our research concluded that parents and public school professionals are seeking ways to provide relationship/sexuality education to adolescents with special needs. In general, any education that these children receive on this topic is in health class. These classes are usually combined with students who are typically developing, and the setting is customarily not conducive for learning this type of sensitive material. Although, a professional teaches the curriculum, the teacher usually has limited experience teaching to individuals with special needs. Research shows that individuals with developmental disabilities (DD) do not learn by standard practice teaching methods. A multi-sensory approach as well as reinforcement, practice and repetition tends to make the learning much more experiential and memorable for students with special needs.

Therefore, the relationship and sexuality curriculum we teach is enhanced with a multi-modality approach. Slides of pictures and drawings, videos, anatomical teaching models and games all strengthen the learning experience. Knowledge is tested after each session in a question game format. We encourage parents, siblings, educators, classmates and caretakers to help by being positive role models.

Anyone graduating from college and pursuing their career goal has fears and anxieties about the adult world they are entering. It is no different for individuals with DD.

The adolescents and young adults (ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-one) who have participated in our classes express the same fears and anxieties as anyone else in their age bracket. What will the future bring? How will I remain in contact with the people I have known through out my school years? Will I like my job; will the people I work with be nice? How do I make new friends?

I have found that providing relationship sexuality classes to individuals with developmental disabilities in a quiet, private and therapeutic environment enhances their self-esteem and independence. These classes provide an opportunity for them to explore their feelings and attitudes about sexuality, to reinforce responsible decision-making, and to avoid exploitation, harassment and abuse. They learn how to develop meaningful and reciprocal friendships. Something that is important in everyone’s life! The necessity to provide people with DD, in this age group, services and support to assist them in developing meaningful relationships is obvious. This skill would empower them, as adults to better understand how to develop and sustain relationships.

If you are interested in learning more about what The Center for Relationship and Sexuality Education has to offer, log on to for additional information.

Deborah Taylor, RNDeborah A. Taylor is a registered nurse who is certified in Developmental Disabilities Nursing. She is one of the entrepreneurs and program director of the Oak Hill Center for Relationship and Sexuality Education for people with special needs in Hartford, Connecticut. In conjunction with her administrative responsibilities, she facilitates therapeutic groups and teaches anatomy and sexual health to individuals with developmental disabilities. She also lectures and conducts training nationally on thoughtful and comprehensive approaches to the sexual expression of individuals with developmental disabilities, specific syndromes, and other physical/emotional conditions.

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