- Bates, C (2018) Sexuality and Learning Disabilities (2nd edition) is a handbook intended to guide anyone working with people with learning disabilities. Pavilion Publishing
- Scott, L. & Kerr-Edwards (1999) Talking Together About Growing Up: A Workbook for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities Family Planning Association
- Family Planning Association (2009) All About Us Family Planning Association
- Reynolds, K (2015) Things Ellie Likes: A book about sexuality and masturbation for girls and young women with autism and related conditions
- Reynolds, K (2016) Things Tom Likes: A book about sexuality and masturbation for boys and young men with autism and related conditions
Supported Loving toolkit
Masturbation is a subject not often spoken about in learning disabilities services. However, it is a way for an individual to express their sexual nature.
As with any other sort of sexual behaviour, people with learning disabilities may need support. This support should come from sexuality training to increase knowledge and confidence in discussing the topic, as well as development of appropriate policies. Unfortunately, this is often not the situation, and so many people with learning disabilities find their own way. The following will provide some guidance about how to provide such support for people with learning disabilities.
Helping people with learning disabilities
Often initial technique starts from some form of genital stimulation, especially if sensory processing is an issue. Frequently, such stimulation focuses upon the groin via rubbing ('dry humping') the floor, furniture and people, or by using inappropriate objects (e.g. pens, cutlery or clothing) to stimulate the area. In both cases, such technique can result in serious injury or issues relating to accessing inappropriate locations (e.g. garden or lounge).
Assisting the individual should include considering any possible sensory difficulties and how to effectively support these difficulties. Also as teaching about masturbation techniques has to be hands off, consideration should be made of educational materials, including DVDs. If the individual is over 18, then the use of more graphic material may assist, although ensuring that no other literal meanings can be reached is important.
A private area, such as a person’s bedroom or possibly bathroom/toilet, are deemed as appropriate locations to masturbate in. However, for some individuals with learning disabilities/autism such boundaries are not necessarily clear. Unfortunately, making assumptions regarding someone’s understanding about this issue could lead to inadvertent rule breaking and contact with the criminal justice system. It is important to explore the individual’s understanding about public/private areas, including the difference between toilets at home and those at school or in public, as well as recognising that being on webcam (e.g. Skype) in an empty bedroom is not private.
Supporting individuals with learning disabilities needs to involve understanding their perception of public/private and providing prompts for when they need to access appropriate private areas to masturbate in. Potentially, this work should, even in someone with good verbal skills, utilise visual methods (such as pictures/films) to explore the concepts as well as visual prompts for when the individual needs to relocate to engage in masturbation.
Generally, frequency of masturbation reduces either due to finishing puberty or successfully reaching climax. Of course, even after this, it is difficult to gauge and measure whether an individual is masturbating excessively as, regardless of having a learning disability, it depends upon them. However, one way to gauge the situation would be the impact upon their ability to access the world around them, another would be if it causes injury to their genital area. Ask yourself is their need to masturbate so strong that they cannot go out or participate in activities?
If it is felt that the individual is excessively masturbating, then further investigation is necessary. This should include any medical aspects, such as urinary tract infections, as well as medication side effects. Other aspects to consider are masturbation techniques not being effective and the possibility that masturbation has become an obsession for the individual. Support will have to centre on the potential cause but may include putting boundaries in place and providing alternative activities should there be links with boredom, etc.
Supporting people - the right way
- Although many people find masturbation embarassing and, in some cases, inappropriate, it is the right of someone with a learning disability to be able to masturbate. Services and staff need to recognise their own views and how it may impact upon the individual with learning disabilities.
- Explore the individual’s masturbation habits without being too intrusive. Services need to understand the individual’s masturbatory methods, including stimulatory methods, and whether climax is reached. Masturbation can be associated with extreme and powerful emotions, including association with objects in the vicinity during masturbation.
- Inappropriate masturbation can be an indicator of sexual abuse that has or is occurring. Studies have demonstrated the vulnerability of individuals with learning disabilities as victims of sexual abuse. Although inappropriate masturbation occurring due to sexual abuse is not necessarily a primary indicator, it is important that this is part of the overall exploration.
Jane is a 21-year-old lady with ASD and learning disabilities. She lives in supported living accommodation supported by staff in developing her independence.
Recently, staff have discovered Jane forcibly inserting various foreign objects into her vagina, underwear, pens, pencils and the handle end of a pair of scissors. Attempts have been made to remove items from her room to reduce the problem, but she continues the practice even though it has resulted in a number of hospital visits due to damage sustained.
Although the staff were correct in removing the foreign objects, it
was important for staff to implement an individualised sex education
programme within which an appropriate person explored the reasoning
behind her sexualised behaviour. This reinforced to Jane, with
appropriate visuals, an understanding about her body, appropriate
methods of masturbating and rules for masturbation identifying correct
processes including cleanliness and privacy. It was felt necessary to
introduce, a sex toy, a vibrator, to help Jane be more successful in
masturbating which also involved a need to ensure that she was able to