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Friendships and relationships are important elements in everyone’s life. Without them we can become lonely, and our mental health can suffer.
Making friends can be particularly hard for many people with learning disabilities, who may have fewer social opportunities than other people. They may not have as much choice about their friends, and stick to family and to the people they live with.
Sometimes people who have paid staff think of their staff as friends, but these friendships are often one-sided and can vanish when the workforce changes. People with learning disabilities who do not get any support, on the other hand, may be especially at risk of isolation and depression.
Loving is part of being human, and so is touching and being touched. Sex is a natural part of this, and the part we often find most difficult for ourselves, let alone trying to support anyone else.
People may need practical as well as emotional support about making friends and enjoying close and intimate relationships. This can create unique complications for parents and others who also wish to provide care and protection, but may not like their grown-up children’s choices. If their child has a learning disability this can make it harder to allow a ‘dignity of risk’. In the wish to protect, parents may be unaware they are stifling normal growth.
Some parents may feel more comfortable than others when discussing personal matters with their son or daughter. Others may find it helpful to talk first to a third party who knows their son or daughter well, if they have any concerns. Most important of all, their son or daughter should be encouraged to speak about these personal things, which they may think are taboo.
Relationships can be painful and most of us can remember a time when we felt sad, lonely, angry, scared or lost because a loving relationship had come to an end. This sort of pain is part of being alive and when we try to protect someone, it takes away precious freedoms as well.
All young adults require privacy to develop emotionally and sexually. Where privacy is not provided, important areas of growth are spoilt or distorted. People with learning disabilities should have the chance to make ordinary mistakes, just as we all do. Their reward will be the opportunity to experience joy, excitement and fun as well.
Healthy and appropriate sexual expression should not be restricted, because people who are kept in ignorance are more likely to show disturbed behaviour or to be abused.
Legality, permission and consent
People often mix up these three concepts, and professionals in particular worry that they may be supporting a relationship that is unsafe, or even against the law. Health and safeguarding are very important. Above all, despite all practical concerns and social taboos, it is important to remember how vital human loving (including sexual love) can be for people’s health and happiness.
The most important concept is consent. Consent can sometimes be very complicated – for instance, someone consenting to medical treatment needs to know about side-effects, reasons for treatment and so on. But establishing consent to be in a relationship and to take part in intimate activity is usually much simpler. People often demonstrate their consent by their actions.
How can people keep safe in relationships?
One of the best ways to help people keep safe in relationships is to help them to build up their confidence and self-esteem. One way of doing this is through taking part in drama and role play. This is also a really good way for people to focus on thinking about how people relate to one another and to work out the difference between unhealthy and healthy relationships. Role play can offer people the opportunity to try out different ways of responding to different situations. This can be like a rehearsal so that it becomes easier to be assertive in real relationships.
Creating opportunities to talk about relationships and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of treating one another are also really helpful. This can be done either in a small group or one to one.
Learning about your sexuality is a normal and healthy part of becoming an adult. When young people explore their sexuality it can be very exciting, but doing things for the first time can be worrying too. It can be hard to know how and when to develop a sexual relationship. You need to know someone well enough so that you both feel ready for sex. And many people will choose to wait until they are ready for marriage before they have sex together.
Masturbation is a normal part of sexual development. When you masturbate, you touch your genitals (your private parts) in ways that are pleasurable and sexually exciting. Masturbation allows young people to explore their sexual feelings and helps them to discover what they like about sexual behaviour. It is important that masturbation happens in private places such as your bedroom. This is because it is personal.
Understanding sexual feelings
It can be difficult to know when you are ready for sex. Two people may get along well, laugh together and have the same interests. They may find each other physically attractive. When two people fall in love, they often find that they want to spend a lot of time together. They enjoy each other’s company and care about each other. These loving feelings can sometimes become sexual feelings and the two people may decide they want to start a sexual relationship.
It is very important that both people have agreed to have sex. In fact, it is illegal to have sex with a person if they do not agree to it. Agreeing to have sex means that it is your choice and that you have not been forced or persuaded into it, and that you are not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If you have loving feelings towards someone and you think you might be ready for sex, it is important to know if the other person feels the same way. Talking to your girlfriend about your relationship is the best way to know if you are both ready for sex. You can talk through any worries or concerns you may have and you can decide together what to do. If you find that your girlfriend does not want to have sex or is not ready, it is very important to respect her decision. Talking about sex does not mean trying to convince your girlfriend that this is a good idea. Forcing someone to have sex is against the law.
If a couple do not want to have a baby but decide that they do want to have a sexual relationship, they need to use a form of contraception. There are lots of different types, including contraceptive pills and implants for women. For men, condoms are the main type of contraception. Condoms are a good type of contraception if they are used properly – it is important to learn how to use them. Some men find condoms difficult to use. Men have a responsibility to be aware of contraception if they do not want to become a father.
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