Sex & relationships for young people with learning difficulties

16th June 2017

Pinpoint’s Preparing for Adulthood Support Group hosted Liz MacKenzie, Learning Disabilities SRE Lead from Cambridge charity Dhiverse.

Liz runs the charity’s successful ABC programme about healthy relationships. And over the last year has visited schools, day centres and residential homes and worked with the Learning Disability Partnership to support over 400 young people with LDs across the county.

So who better to give our PfA parent carers some top tips on how to support their children and young people with the often tricky topic of Sex and Relationships?  Her colleague Grant Chambers, who leads Dhiverse training and health promotion work, joined us too.

“Sometimes decision-making is taken away from young people, so allowing them to make safe, balanced and educated decisions on SRE is important. Young people with LDs have the same freedom and choice as everyone else but it’s important they know it is a choice.”

Why SRE is important:

Being able to access clear, accurate and straightforward SRE information is vital. Otherwise, the consequences might include:

  • Not understanding what’s happening to their bodies
  • Being vulnerable to manipulation, abuse or exploitation
  • Inappropriate behaviour
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Pregnancy
  • Missing out on a happy and fulfilling relationship.

The Law:

It is legal for anyone aged 16 years and over to engage in consensual sexual activity with partners of the same or opposite sex. This applies to anyone with a learning disability or difficulty (LDD) provided the person has the capacity to consent to sexual activity.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a person is deemed to consent if she/he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. A person may not have the freedom to consent because she/he is forced by, for example, violence or threat of violence, to engage in sexual activity. A person may not have the capacity to consent to sexual activity because, for instance, they have a mental disorder.

Teach your children that consent is retractable – it does not mean you consent again and again.  Encourage them to ask: Is this OK?

Added Liz: “Saying no takes guts and can often be manipulated into a yes. Hearing and accepting that no is key.”

Role of parents and carers

Dads or male carers don’t have to talk to boys and it’s not just Mums who have to lead SRE conversations with their daughters. Who does your son or daughter communicate best with? Who are they are most comfortable with?

Top Tips:

  • Listen to what your children are saying ¬– try not to seem embarrassed or give the impression you don’t want to talk about it
  • If possible, try to start when they are young. That way it becomes a natural topic and less awkward on both sides.
  • Give clear, accurate, simple instructions or answers to their questions.
  • Try to keep patient, calm and matter of fact but talk about things naturally
  • Lots of little conversations are better than The Big Talk which can be overwhelming, perhaps frightening, and difficult to remember
  • Repeat things you’ve discussed if you need to
  • Use proper names for body parts to avoid confusion and ambiguity
  • Talk about what will happen as their body changes so that they know what to expect and will be better prepared.
  • Photos or a diagram or book are all good ways to start a conversation – see reading suggestions below
  • Discussing something you have watched together on TV can also help
  • If your child repeats something they have heard from peers or TV that shocks you or you don’t agree with, try to discuss it calmly to help them understand different view-points
  • Don’t jump to conclusions
  • Try to keep a balance between the risks and the positives of a sexual relationship
  • If you are worried about a sexual relationship that is not consensual, contact the police or family social worker.

Reading List

Family Planning Association: All About Us – a DVD and easy read booklet and Talking Together About Sex and Relationships

Parent suggestions: Teaching children with Down Syndrome about their Bodies, Boundaries and Sexuality by Terri Couwenhoven; Usborne Children’s Books What’s happening to Me?  (there are boy/girl versions).

Dhiverse ABC Course

If you’d like to find out more about the ABC (Awareness, Balance, Choice) course, contact Dhiverse on 01223 508805. Email  Website:  The course can be delivered in groups or one to one and can be tailored to meet individual needs.

Sexual Health Information

Contraception and regular health check-ups are vital if your children are in a sexual relationship.

Free condoms are available from: many sexual health clinics, sexual health charities (such as DHIVERSE); school nurses, GPs and youth clubs.

Emergency contraception: You can get the emergency pill FREE from many pharmacies. This is available to women of all ages (including under 16). Dhiverse emergency contraception factsheet