Young girls with differing abilities learning about sexual health

Differing Abilities

Understanding Your Child’s Development

Children with differing abilities may develop earlier or later than other kids. Although no two kids will develop the same way, they will still progress through the different stages. Each child also has their own learning needs. Keep talking with your child about your values around sexuality as they grow and develop into adulthood. Learning about the development at different ages will help you understand where your child is in their development.

What Your Child Needs Your Help to Learn

Sexuality is a Part of Your Child

Like other kids, sexual health is part of the well-being of kids with differing abilities. They will experience many of the same changes and curiosity. It’s important that all kids see their sexuality valued through support from parents and other significant adults.

They will need to learn about:

  • ‘private’ and ‘not private’
  • reproduction
  • sexual orientation and gender diversity

As they enter their teen years, they too will need to learn about birth control and safer sex. They’ll also need to know how to set limits for themselves and their partners. Parents may be in the best position to know how to word the information in a way their child understands. The following sections will have suggestions for parents on discussing sexual health with kids with differing abilities.

Sexual Assault, Abuse and Differing Abilities

Disability may make a person more at risk of assault and abuse. Kids with differing abilities are more than twice as likely to be sexually abused as kids with no disability. Adults with developmental disabilities are also at risk. They are 4 to 10 times more likely to endure physical and/or sexual assault.

Kids with differing abilities are more at risk for sexual abuse and sexual assault because they:

  • often need help with personal care and hygiene
  • may find it harder to report abuse if they have problems communicating
  • may be targeted if their mental age is younger than their real age
  • may not be believed when they report abuse
  • may not have had enough sexual health education to understand that they’ve been abused or assaulted.

Protecting Your Child from Sexual Assault or Abuse

Sexuality is a big part of the well-being of all people, including those with disabilities. Kids and youth who get sexual health education focusing on their strengths and needs are less likely to be abused and exploited. They’re more likely to have healthy relationships. Each child is unique, so education strategies will need to fit each child.

Here are some tips that may help protect your child from sexual assault or sexual abuse.

  • Provide them with sexual health information that focuses on their unique needs.
  • Teach them to use the correct names for body parts.
  • Make sure they understand which parts of their body are ‘private’, and what ‘privacy’ means.
  • Make sure they know about ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ touch.
  • Teach your child what a personal boundary is and that it’s okay to say ‘no’. Often people with disabilities are taught to do as they’re told. However, they need to know they have the right to say ‘no’ when their personal boundary is crossed. You can support your child in maintaining their boundaries by asking them for consent and expecting caregivers to do the same.
  • Teach your child to ask for consent, such as before hugging or touching another person. Children with differing abilities may need help understanding what others find uncomfortable.
  • Practice using role play and problem-solving skills so your child can practice saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
  • Ensure your child understands their rights and their choices for healthy sexuality.

’Okay’ Touch vs. ‘Not Okay’ Touch

There are five main messages behind this idea.

  1. Teach your child that their body is their own and no one can touch it or look at it without their permission. Inappropriate touches are wrong and are against the law. Talking about this idea at an early age, using the correct name for body parts, and teaching your child which parts of their body are ‘private’, will help them understand what is okay and not okay. They also need to be taught to respect others when someone says ‘no’ to them, no matter what.
  2. Help your child recognize how they feel when they are in safe, uncomfortable and unsafe situations. Emphasize that your child should pay attention to how a touch makes them feel, especially those ‘uh-oh’ feelings. Even if a touch feels good, if they get an ‘uh-oh’ feeling, this touch is not okay.
  3. Be a trusted adult one your child can tell anything to. Listen to them, allow them time to ask questions without shame or judgement, and believe what they’re saying.
  4. There are no secrets around touch and all kinds of touch can be talked about. Secrets that make them anxious, uncomfortable, scared or depressed are not good. Encourage them to share with you or another trusted adult.
  5. Always believe what you’ve been told. When a child tells you they have been touched, treated, or spoken to in a way that feels uncomfortable, unsafe or hurtful, believe them, get more information, and keep them safe.

For more information about discussing a range of sexuality topics with children and youth with differing abilities, visit Talking about Sexuality in Canadian Communities.

To learn more about what consent is, and how to talk about it with your child, see Consent.


Most kids show signs of puberty beginning between the ages of 9 and 13. Children with some conditions or disabilities may develop earlier or later. Ask your family doctor if you have questions or concerns about this. Give your child the facts about their body. Explain what puberty is before they start to experience it. This will help them understand that these changes are normal and healthy.

Physical changes are often the first sign that your child is starting puberty. This can be both exciting and upsetting for a child. That’s why it’s important to talk to your child about these changes before they start happening. You will need to help them learn the skills to cope with the changes (e.g., hygiene).

Physical and Sexual Development by Age

To learn more about physical and sexual development in your child and/or teen, click on the age ranges below:

To learn more, see Additional Resources.

To learn more, see Tips for Talking about Sexual Health.

Helpful Tools


Parent Guide (0-12 year olds)

This resource will help you prepare for the ongoing conversations you’ll have with your child about sexual health. Whether you’ve had conversations in the past or not, it’s never too late to start!


Parent Guide (13-18 year olds)

This resource will help you prepare for the ongoing conversations you'll have with your teen about sexual health. Whether you've had conversations in the past or not, it's never too late to start.


Sexuality Wheel

Explore the dimensions of human sexuality.


The "Every Body"

Learn about the differences between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.


Understanding Consent Video

A video linked on the Consent page for ages 12 and up.


Parent FAQs

See sample questions and answers to help you start the conversation about sexual health with your child.


Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Tool

Learn about some common sexually transmitted infections.


Birth Control Tool

Explore birth control options, how they work and how well they protect against pregnancy and STIs.


Tips for Discussing Sexual Health

Here are some tips for starting or having conversations about sexual health, at any age.

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