Sexologist Jodi Rodgers spoke in a Zoom forum last week as the special guest of the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University.
Intimate expressions by or among people on the spectrum is something to be understood, not feared. Instead, we all benefit when neurodiverse children are given access to sex education, which will help them form healthy, ethical and fulfilling relationships, says sexologist and counselor Jodi Rodgers.
“Every single person on this planet has a right to enjoy their sexuality … every single person has the right to receive this information,” Rodgers said. “We need to think about the barriers that are created for people if they don’t have access and experience with all those aspects of life.”
Rodgers, who featured prominently in the Netflix docuseries “Love on the Spectrum,” spoke in a virtual forum last week as part of the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University. Speaking via Zoom from her native Australia, she expressed the urgency of sharing critical sexual information with young people who have developmental disabilities.
Without such education, people with cognitive challenges are ill-equipped to understand the changes and urges that emerge during puberty. Later, they might have difficulty with adult relationships and fail to understand social norms.
A neurotypical boy in a classroom, embarrassed by inopportune tumescence, takes great pains to conceal his state. In contrast, children and adolescents with cognitive challenges might never have received the message that “private parts are for private places.”
“Sometimes, when they hit puberty, it’s one of the times when they’re hitting a developmental milestone at the right time,” said Rodgers, who established her private practice, Birds and Bees, after 25 years of working within the education, disability and sexuality fields. “I’m learning about the diversity of sexuality every day.”
Sex education for all
When Rodgers speaks of sexual behavior, she is taking a holistic view of intimate behaviors, not simply “penetrative sex,” she said. And her mission is critical, as she believes the ability to share that level of intimacy with another person is integral to a fulfilling life.
However, people born with some sort of cognitive disability — possibly 15 percent of human beings — have historically been bereft of that basic benefit of human interaction. Rodgers explained that most people learn about sex from their families, their peers and/or from reading or viewing sexual materials. People on the spectrum, in contrast, seldom experience such real-world education.
Mercifully, there’s help today. In addition to Rodgers’s work, and the work of therapists, teachers and others she trains, many parents and other caregivers are now aware of neurodiverse people’s need for a fulfilling adult life. While society has often infantilized such people, there are now agencies, organizations and schools dedicated to changing that.
One example is Lesley’s own Threshold Program. Founded in 1982, Threshold was the first college-based program in the nation to offer comprehensive employment training and life skills for highly motivated students with developmental and intellectual differences. The non-credit certificate program, along with a first-of-its-kind Alumni Center, has helped students navigate life with confidence for 40 years.
More work on this front is needed, though. Rodgers said that people who have trouble with abstract thinking need materials that are more visual in nature, as traditional, more clinical sex education texts are insufficient conveyors of critical information.
“We don’t take somebody to a pool without teaching them how to swim,” Rodgers said, adding that the traditional sex education model (where a diagram of the human reproductive system “might as well have been a map of Europe,” she quipped), is often ill-suited to neurodiverse learners.
Without such materials, neurodiverse individuals are robbed of understanding consent and other matters of sexual ethics. Even the basic skills of dating, like how to extract themselves from negative situations or determining who might make trustworthy partners, are absent. And this absence of knowledge can make them targets of exploitation in real life, as well as on dating sites and open chatrooms.
“We need to provide accessible information, and then we limit the vulnerability,” Rodgers said, adding that part of her work is to dispel the myth that people with cognitive disabilities are always asexual.
So, everyone could benefit from more knowledge about human sexuality.
“Every single person on the planet has sexuality and expresses their sexuality in one form or another,” Rodgers said. “We’re still so archaic in the way we talk about our sexuality.”