Children and youth who understand healthy boundaries are more likely to develop skills for self-control and individual responsibility. This in turn will help them show respect for others and develop personal safety rules. Everyone deserves respect and to feel safe.
- Understanding the difference between public and private including spaces, behaviours and topics of discussion.
- Personal space and touch; “okay” touch and “not okay” touch.
- The concept that “my body is private” and only certain people can touch my body.
- What to do and who to tell when touching is not appropriate.
Amreet is 11 years old and uses limited verbal communication. Recently he has been very affectionate towards his younger siblings and classmates wanting to hug, hold hands, and kiss. Sometimes it’s welcome but more often than not, he gets the cold shoulder. His 8 year old sister gets embarrassed when they are at school and has told her parents that other students laugh at Amreet. As Amreet is turned away by the children at school he is becoming more upset and aggressive and is facing many time-outs at home and school.
Research suggests that youth with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, are more likely to be abused and exploited (Davis, 2011; PHAC, 2013). The good news is that talking and teaching about healthy touch and boundaries can reduce this risk considerably.
As Byers, Nicholas, Voyer and Reilly (2013) suggest, providing positive messages with regards to sexuality at an early age, individuals with intellectual disabilities “will have the opportunity to develop a positive sexual self-view, build confidence and self-knowledge, avoid potentially dangerous situations for themselves and others, and seek the sexual well-being that best meets their needs and desires” (p. 13).
Children may spend lots of time with their teachers and support staff but there are boundaries about touch (e.g., full body hugs are not OK but a side hug is). Different families and providers have different rules about touch and personal space. These rules should be in place to avoid any confusion and to help everyone feel safe.
If a child is overly affectionate, touching in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable, other methods of communication and ways to meet that sensory need should be considered. Completely taking all touch away could result in them acting out and showing aggression or completely withdrawing. Parents and providers can work together to share examples of what works for the child as this will help with consistency.
Good touch helps us feel safe. Sometimes we may want a hug and can ask for one. Some examples of safe touch include hugs, high fives, fist bumps or holding hands.
Unsafe touch is anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, angry or upset. Some examples include hitting, kicking, slapping, biting, poking, asking to see private body parts, any touch to the “swimsuit area”, “pantsing” (pulling down someone’s pants), or giving a “wedgie.”
- Your body is yours, your body is private.
- No-one should ask to look at your private parts, ask you to look at their private parts, or show you photos of private parts (e.g., on a computer).
- Secrets about touching should never be kept; someone may try to bribe, trick, force or embarrass you into touching. This is never OK.
- Say NO, STOP or I DON’T LIKE THAT either in a loud voice or with body language (e.g., put hands up in front as if to send someone away). Practice this often and find a way for the child or youth to say or show no.
- Move away from the situation (e.g., if someone is pushing in the hallway, move away).
- Tell an adult you trust and keep on telling until an adult asks how they can help. Talk about who the child or youth can trust as a safe adult.
For some families, masturbation is very offensive and is not talked about. This can make it very difficult when a child shows the behavior outside of the home as the family may not want to work with teachers and support workers to improve the situation.
- Masturbation is when someone touches their private parts to make them feel good.
- Masturbation is normal. Some people choose to do it and others choose not to.
- Masturbation is not harmful unless it interferes with being involved with daily activities (e.g., youth misses school to stay home to masturbate).
- Masturbation is OK if it is done in private (e.g., alone in the bathroom or bedroom at home with the door closed). Be sure to identify the private places at home. Teach that even when alone in the family room, that space is not private.
- It may help to set some guidelines about how to clean up after.
Byers, E. S., Nichols, S., Voyer, S. D., & Reilly, G. (2013). Sexual well-being of a community sample of high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum who have been in a romantic relationship. Autism, 17(4), 418-433.
Davis, L.A. (2011). People with intellectual disabilities and sexual violence. Retrieved from http://www.thearc.org/document.doc?id=3657
Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). (2013). Questions & Answers: Sexual health education for youth with physical disabilities. Retrieved from http://librarypdf.catie.ca/pdf/ATI-20000s/26289_B_ENG.pdf