“RSE is a necessity to improve overall quality of life in adolescence and adulthood, and minimize the risk for abuse.”Tullis and Zangrillo, 2013
I am going to start my blog posts with a topic that can be considered a complex, ‘touchy’ area for some, I know it was for me at the beginning. It is a topic that I am passionate about after teaching in an ASD class with some older boys and girls. I had no idea how to approach the topic and the mainstream Relationships Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum was much too complex for the children I was working with. Anyone I spoke to wasn’t too sure how to advise me or wasn’t overly comfortable talking about it.
I ended up completing some amazing CPD courses about the topic, met some lovely teachers in similar positions and have been passionate about the topic since. I have complied some info and tips about how I approached the topic in the ASD class I was working in.
Where to Begin: Preparation is Key
I felt more comfortable approaching parents and other staff members about this topic with some knowledge behind me. I would definitely recommend courses with the SESS, they run a course in conjunction with Middle Centre for Autism called ‘Puberty, Relationships, Sexuality & Autism’ which is so informative and a great opportunity to meet other teachers who are planning for the same topic. If you are starting in an ASD class or setting I would recommend completing this course regardless of the age of the children. They talk a lot about how preparation is key and the benefits of teaching children about public and private from an early age.
‘RSE, Preventing Problems Before They Happen – Lynne Moxon’ run by Middletown Centre for Autism. This course was open to both professionals and parents. A lot of examples were used and a lot of situations were discussed that I wouldn’t have thought about before. Would definitely recommend attending this course if it is run again. I understand a lot of these courses unfortunately may not be run this academic year, I will be keeping an eye out for any online training that comes up.
Definitely check your school policies about RSE or have a chat to your principal/SEN coordinator. Check if the policies are adapted to suit children with autism, particularly if you are working in a new ASD class in a mainstream school as it might need to be reviewed or updated. Ensure anything you plan to teach is in line with your school policies incase any issues were to arise. For example; child protection issues, if the parents/families have any issues or concerns.
This is without a doubt, the most important part of the preparation. RSE and puberty are complex areas for everyone involved. Ensuring there is a partnership between home and school is essential in the effective teaching of this topic. Communication with parents is so important for a consistent approach for the child in all aspects of their education but in particular puberty and RSE. What I found worked best for our class, was letting the parents know at the beginning of the year that it will be a topic we will be covering during the year. This way they had time to think about what topics were important to them, get their own heads around it all, consider possible Individualised Education Plan (IEP) targets and do some of their own research.
I let the parents know about the Lynne Moxon RSE workshop that was being run by Middletown for both professionals and parents. A lot of parents and staff members from our class attended this together prior to beginning the topic with the children. We all found it so beneficial. When we began teaching RSE, we were able to refer back to items that were mentioned on the course. This also meant that someone else introduced all of the ‘tricky topics’ to parents so when it was time for me to bring them up, they knew the conversation was coming, any awkwardness was over and they were already aware of the benefits of the teaching the topic. There were some parents who weren’t able to attend the course. I found once some parents in the class were onboard and involved, this encouraged others to want to become involved or to find out more.
Another idea for introducing the topic to parents is having a group meeting to discuss your intentions for the RSE curriculum. In the current climate, I wonder could something like this be done over Zoom. This meeting gives you as a teacher and paraprofessionals a chance to explain everything clearly to the parents and for them to have a chat to eachother about it or ask any questions and raise any concerns in a safe environment.
Whatever way you prepare for the teaching of RSE ensuring there is open and regular communication with the parents is key for ensuring consistent approaches for the children.
Teaching Younger Children
Topics that I have taught from a younger age, in line with the curriculum are: public and private behaviours, public and private places (school, home, community) proper names for body parts, emotions, food and nutrition, personal care and personal space. I have really enjoyed teaching children these topics, the children can really relate to them and become so interested. I normally spend a fortnight on a topic in school, ensure the children can generalise it in school with different adults. After this, send home any activities that have been mastered in school to the parents to work on generalisation at home.
I use the same strategies for teaching this topic as I would for teaching any other topic to children with autism. In particular strategies I found that have worked well are: visuals, schedules, work systems, social stories, line drawings and backward chaining. One piece of advice I received when completing CPD was to only teach the children about their own gender. Depending on ability some children could be taught about what changes will happen to the opposite gender. Use both proactive and reactive strategies, if possible, try to ensure that the majority of teaching time is proactive strategies. For reactive strategies, we found it beneficial to sit down as a team and decide how we would try to react to unexpected/inappropriate behaviours to try and minimize the likelihood of them happening again. Sometimes our reactions can encourage the behaviours to happen again so it was definitely important for us to have a plan in place.
When teaching older children about puberty, I found teaching the girls in a group and then teaching the boys in a separate group worked best. To ensure it was a safe space for the children and to ensure younger children didn’t hear anything that they shouldn’t, I had to work on my timetabling to ensure the group I was working with were the only ones in the room at that time. I scheduled the group around times other children would be in mainstream, on movement breaks etc.
There are a lot of amazing resources for teaching RSE for children in the mainstream. I find that some of these resources didn’t suit the children with autism in my class as they required a theory of mind to get the benefit from them. I ended up making a lot of my own resources instead.
Here are some resources I did find useful and some further reading if this topic interests you too.
‘What’s Happening to Ellie?’ – Kate E. Reynolds
‘What’s Happening to Tom?’ – Kate E. Reynolds
‘Thinking About You, Thinking About Me’
‘Talkabout Relationships’ – Alex Kelly
SPHE Support Service link: https://sphe.ie/supportservice.aspx
‘Sexuality and Relationship Education for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders’ – Davida Hartman
‘Hidden Curriculum’ – Brenda Smith Myles
‘Autism and Appropriate Touch’ – Abigail Werner James
Thank you so much for reading, I hope this has been beneficial to you in some way. I know I found this a difficult topic to approach at the beginning so if anyone would like to ask any questions, help with resources or would like to chat about it, I would love to hear from you.