Approaches to sex and relationship education for young people with additional needs

Post date: 
Thursday, 18 January 2018
Photo of two people talking

The first steps into a romantic or sexual relationship can be tricky. Cath Robinson, from RNIB College Loughborough, shares ways they approach sex and relationship education (SRE) with students who have vision impairment and learning difficulties.

At RNIB College Loughborough, we offer specialist support to young people who have vision impairment (VI) and additional disabilities. We’re a small day and residential college where we aim to empower young people to reach their full potential. As part of this role, we provide pastoral support and help with the everyday challenges that each student faces.
Although the number of romantic relationships at the College remains quite small, many students find close relationships with other students difficult. In some cases, parents can struggle with the idea that their son or daughter will cope with the complexities of an adult relationship.
Our input can vary from providing support as they begin to think about having sex with their first partner, to supporting students through break-ups, and everything in between. 

Our approach to educating students

We have found that an individualised approach is needed for each student. This has ranged from focusing on appropriate touch and being able to say no, to how to have a safe and sexual relationship.
The key messages running throughout are choice and safety, as well as giving facts rather than personal opinions on behaviour. It’s important to ensure that information is given clearly with unambiguous language and, if appropriate, images or models of bodies.
Areas we have focused on are:
  • consent to any physical contact
  • understanding the importance of making choices
  • what is a healthy relationship and how a relationship develops
  • safer sex and making sure students are aware that sexual contact has risks to emotional wellbeing as well as physical risks of STIs and pregnancy
  • sources of help and advice, and developing the confidence to ask for help.
When working with students, we also need to be aware of cultural differences and the impact of religious beliefs.
Some of the students have responded well to group sessions, where they can discuss topics with other students and learn from each other. However, for some we have worked on a one-to-one basis.

Feedback from parents and carers

There can be some difficulties for parents and carers, as they are worried that their young person isn’t ready for information on romantic and sexual relationships, and that gaining this knowledge will lead to over-sexualised behaviour and put them at greater risk.
In these situations, we speak to the young person to gain consent to speak to their parents, and then work with the young person and their family to understand their rights and responsibilities. It’s important to remember that every adult has the right to make his or her own decisions regarding personal relationships and sexuality, and it must be assumed that they have the capacity to make an informed decision unless proved otherwise. 

We step in if we are worried

If we had any doubts about the young person’s capacity, we would seek support from external agencies, such as the NHS Trust Learning Disability Team, who have access to specialist nurses.

What has worked well

We have had students progress into happy and successful sexual relationships, where they have been able to speak to staff and medical professionals about their needs and take control of their relationships.

Developments we have made

We have increased the content on online behaviours and how to stay safe. This is an increasingly challenging area for all young people and we put a strong emphasis on developing resilience when being online. We have put specific strategies in place to support young people who have access to the internet but may be at higher risk because of their vulnerability.

Resources we have found useful

The Family Planning Association has a range of resources and training aimed at professionals working with people with a learning difficulty, which cover the range of topics described above. We have used interactive CD_ROMS, videos and paper resources, adapted for students with VI where appropriate. 

Further information

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