intellectual disability

The Important Conversation No One Wants to Have: Handling your Neurodivergent Teen's Burgeoning Sexuality

Parents, teachers, and caregivers frequently ask me for advice about managing the burgeoning sexuality of their pre-teen or teen, particularly when these teens are neurodivergent or have an intellectual disability.

Adults are (understandably) particularly concerned when this blossoming sexuality includes inappropriate behaviors, or concerns about the teen being taken advantage of.  This blog will break down four key aspects to keep in mind, and a useful framework to bring it altogether as you navigate this period with your teen or pre-teen!


Four Key Things to Keep in Mind:

1.Normalize this phase/our bodies: Adults often panic when their teen starts demonstrating sexual development. It is important to remember that this is normal.  Very normal.  If you’re like most adults, you’re likely not all that comfortable talking to teens about sex and sexuality. However, it is incredibly important that you are able to be clear and specific with your teen as they navigate this life phase. Biologically, most of us are wired to go through puberty, experience sexual arousal, and to feel attraction.  Regardless of whether your child is neurodivergent or has a cognitive disability, it is very normal that they’re experiencing puberty and the developing sexuality that goes along with it.  As you think about your teen and how to address this - keep this in mind.  

While you don’t necessarily need to discuss it with your teen - you likely went through some of these things yourself, and you’re a great resource of information!  As you’re navigating this with your teen, it may be important for you to assess your own thoughts and perspectives about sexuality and sex, particularly as it relates to teenagers.  Often, the messages that we have around sex/sexuality are the things we were taught by our own parents.  Consider whether the messages you learned growing up are the same messages that you want to pass along to the teens in your life.  (i.e. If you were never comfortable talking about sexuality with your parents, and you understood that it was a taboo subject for them - do you want your child to feel that same way?)

2. Teach Clear Boundaries Without Shame: Often, well-meaning adults end up inadvertently shaming their teens for their sexuality, which can create long-term issues for the teen, and teach the child that the adult is not a safe resource to seek out when they need support.  Our goal should be to provide clear directions without shame. As we’re helping our teens to know what is normal - be mindful about communicating these elements to the teen without judgement.  Even if you need to set limits with your teen, be sure that you’re communicating to them that a behavior may not be welcome at a specific time, or in a specific place…but that this does not mean they are “bad.”

3. Pro-actively talk about puberty and sexuality:  Having conversations *before* a big issue arises is important.  Yes, your teen may stare at the floor and pretend the conversations aren’t happening.  But, I promise they’re listening.  You may be here because an issue has arisen, and you’re trying to figure out what to do.  And, don’t panic - it is never too late!  But, it may be a good idea to make a list of what you want your teen to know about sex/sexuality/puberty, and then identify what you need to teach them in order for them to know each of those things. 

4. Shrink their world as necessary: If a teen is at-risk, either of acting out towards someone else, or being taken advantage of - it is our job to ensure that our kids stay safe.  We may need to “shrink their worlds” until we can guarantee safety.  

Okay - you may agree that these things make sense, but be wondering what to do if you run into any challenges (inappropriately timed self-stimulation, for example).  We’ll get into that now! A useful framework that we can use when considering issues around sexuality is the What-Why-What-How Model, which includes asking the four questions below:

  1. What happened? (Just the facts)

  2. Why did it happen? (Try to understand the youth’s perspective/worldview)

  3. What do we want to have happen?

  4. How can we encourage that to happen? (What do you need to teach? What skills does your child need to learn?)

This model help us identify how we need to handle an issue that we might be encountering. Imagine that a teenager is engaging in self-stimulation of their genitals in a classroom setting.  

Your instinct may be to quickly tell them that that isn’t okay, and that they need to stop.  And, you’re not wrong - that behavior isn’t okay in that specific setting, and setting a boundary around that is important.  And, yes, acting quickly makes sense. 


 But, if we actually want to address the deeper needs and engage in teaching what *is* okay (and when it is okay), we need to drive deeper, and be sure that we’re understanding and addressing the actual elements that need our attention in this situation.

  1. What happened: The teen was engaging in self-stimulation in a classroom setting.

  2. Why did it happen: We may not entirely know. In short, likely because it felt good, and the teen either thought they could be sneaky, or doesn’t understand the full ramifications of engaging in self-stimulation in a public setting. (They may not understand that it could be considered predatory, or that it should be a private activity)

  3. What do we want to have happen? Ideally, the teen understands that self-stimulation is an activity that is done in a private space, at an appropriate time.

  4. How can we encourage that to happen? Many ways! There are several things that may need to happen here:

      1. The teen may need education about what they’re doing (they may not fully understand, depending on the teen)

      2. The teen may need information around when/where the appropriate place is to engage in self-stimulation (“Johnny, it is normal to be interested in exploring your body. However, touching your private areas/penis/genitals is something that should only happen when you’re alone in a private space, such as a bathroom or your bedroom at home.”

      3. Depending on the teen’s cognitive functioning, this conversation may vary. It may be a back-and-forth conversational exchange. Or, it may be a conversation where you express a limit/boundary to your child, and shape their behavior like you would for any other behavior.

      4. For a while, it may mean keeping the teen’s world “smaller” while they learn and master the skill of “right time, right place.”

Lets try another one.  Imagine that you have a teenage boy who is routinely approaching peers and making sexual remarks at school.

  1. What happened: Johnny approached several peers at school and made remarks about their bodies, and made comments about what he would sexually like to do with them, when they had clearly not consented in these types of remarks or this type of dialogue.

  2. Why did it happen: It is important to sort this out. Perhaps Johnny finds these peers attractive, but isn’t quite sure how to navigate that. Perhaps he needs some help understanding how to appropriate build connections with peers of all genders. Perhaps he needs some education around consent, and genuinely doesn’t understand that what he is doing/saying is inappropriate. Maybe has has difficulty managing his impulses and knowing which thoughts to keep to himself. Maybe he is trying to copy behaviors/words he has seen others deliver - but isn’t understanding the nuance of what has has seen others do. Each of these challenges require a different approach, so it is important that we understand what skills might be missing for Johnny.

  3. What do we want to have happen? We want Johnny to understand what is/isn’t appropriate, and to discontinue making inappropriate and unwanted remarks towards his peers. But, even more deeply, we want Johnny to know how to appropriately build the relationships that he wants to have in a way that works for everyone involved.

  4. How do we do this? First, we need to assess what Johnny does/doesn’t have in the way of skills to more appropriately navigate his sexuality, conversations with peers, or to express his interest in others. From there, we want to provide him with teaching to help him find mastery in navigating puberty and his growing sexuality. Does Johnny need to know that this behavior isn’t okay? Absolutely - 100%. And also, we need to help Johnny know how he *can* actually work towards expressing himself in an appropriate way and building connections he is interested in having, and we need to help him learn to manage his impulses around this.

Navigating puberty/teenagehood is a complicated time!  While teenagers often pull away from us during this time (which is quite normal!) - we need to be sure to provide continued problem solving and support for them during this important time!

This ensures that we’re helping to teach our teens to become adults we want to share the world with!

Questions? Reach out!