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.

Talking about healthy boundaries can include:


  • 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 for certain things (e.g.: visiting the doctor, or assistance in the washroom).
  • 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.






Parents are often more concerned about the risks of abuse when their children and youth have disabilities.


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).


The terms public and private are often misunderstood when boundaries are discussed. It is easy for people to blur the lines when they share information and personal details. Something that is public can usually be shared with other people (e.g., the public library or the swimming pool). Private means not for sharing, such as keeping personal details private or private body parts covered.



  • Public


    • Shaking hands, high five, or fist bump• Touching someone on the arm• Hugging people who are identified as safe people to hug (e.g., family)

  • Private


    • Parts of body covered by underwear/bathing suit should be covered in public places• The mouth• No one can touch your body without your permission• You do not show your private body to anyone who does not want to see it


  • Public


    • Public washrooms including school, library, mall, or rec centre• Shared bedrooms• Family room, kitchen, or basement rooms

  • Private


    • Bathroom at home with the door closed• Private bathroom stall in public washrooms• Bedroom at home with the door closed


  • Public


    • Hugging• Touch for sports and games (e.g., tag, dance, or pushing each other on the swings)

  • Private


    • Masturbation• Taking clothes off• Using the washroom (unless personal care help is needed)

topics of

  • Public


    • Address, telephone number, email address when permission is given by family to share for business reasons (e.g., at the doctor’s office)

  • Private


    • Computer passwords and pin numbers• Private family information• Personal body information (e.g., sharing information about menstrual period)






There are exceptions to some of the rules about public and private when considering community helpers such as doctors, therapists, police officers and fire fighters. Although strangers, these people may need to know personal information and may come into personal space that involves touch but only to do their job. These touches may seem scary or hurtful (e.g., giving a needle), but they are necessary to keep youth healthy.


Touch and personal space are very personal. Some people enjoy hugs and touch, others shy away. Some children and youth with disabilities have particular sensory needs that make it very hard for them to interact with others either because certain touch irritates them or they are overly affectionate with touch. Learning who it is appropriate to touch is a very important lesson and will be different for family versus providers.


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:

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:

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.”

For more detailed examples of how to teach skills for healthy boundaries, see lesson plans on Teaching Sexual Health.





Children and youth can be taught that their personal space can feel like having a “bubble” or force field around them. Sometimes you might want someone to come into your bubble for a hug or back rub, but when someone comes in and you don’t like it, you feel uncomfortable having your bubble burst. It’s OK to say that you don’t like someone bursting your bubble. It doesn’t mean that you never want a hug, just not now. Touch is personal and all about choice. Help children and youth understand that they have the power to say no to touch.


When a child or youth is touched in a way that is not safe, is hurtful, or makes them feel scared, there are skills they can use to stop the touch and ask an adult for help. Sometimes it is easy to tell if something does not feel right. Talk about how our body can give us signals (e.g., crying, hands sweating, nervous tummy, trembling with fear). When we listen to these signals we can do something about them.

When touch is inappropriate or unsafe, teach these rules:


  • 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.




How are you modelling touch with other staff and colleagues? Children and youth will get mixed messages if you have a rule about only handshakes and high fives, yet they catch you hugging each other. Set boundaries and be sure to show how you follow them.


The topic of masturbation can be embarrassing to talk about, but setting rules and dealing with concerns is very important. Masturbation in public or in front of someone without their permission is against the law and can also place children and youth in a vulnerable position. Unfortunately sexual predators may target someone who shows sexual behaviours or interest in sexual behaviours in public.


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.

Some things to talk about when discussing masturbation include:


  • 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.




Some children and youth who masturbate may find it difficult to stop and this could lead to the behaviour being carried out in inappropriate places. It may become a habit and can also be used as a way to soothe or relieve anxiety. Families and providers will need to work closely together to support the child or youth to masturbate only when it is appropriate. Trying to stop a child or youth completely is very difficult and may lead to aggressive behaviours.


Everyone has the right to be touched in a safe and respectful way. Adults have a responsibility to keep children safe. If you are ever concerned that a child or youth is being touched inappropriately (any type of touch that is not healthy and oversteps boundaries) it is important to stay calm.

  • If a child tells you something has happened praise them for telling you and let them know that you believe them. Explain that you are sorry this has happened and that you will help them with the problem.
  • Ensure the child is safe and seek medical attention if necessary.
  • Sexual abuse and assault is against the law. Call your local children’s services office to report.






If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.


If you or someone you know is experiencing or have questions about sexual abuse and sexual assault, call the CONNECT Network: 403.237.5888 in Calgary or 1.877.237.5888 toll free in Alberta.


If you or someone you know is experiencing or have questions about domestic and relationship abuse call the CONNECT Network: 403.234.7233(SAFE) in Calgary or 1.866.606.7233 toll free in Alberta.




Teaching Sexual Health: Differing Abilities Lesson Plans


Teaching Sexual Health: Differing Abilities Package


For resources and information on abuse visit CONNECT





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