Teaching Sex Ed to China’s Special Needs Students


GUANGDONG, South China — Early Sunday morning, eight teenagers sit in a row looking at pictures of male and female bodies on the whiteboard and trying their best to answer the teacher’s question: Which parts of our bodies are private?

“Wee-wee,” Ming Hang, a 12-year-old boy with autism, quickly replies, half giggling. “Remember, let’s call it a penis,” the teacher corrects him amid laughter from his classmates, all of whom have intellectual disabilities.

Hang and his fellow students take this sex education class every Sunday at No. 2 Children’s Palace, an activity center in Guangzhou. The free course was launched by the Nurturing Relationship Education Support Center (NRC), a Guangzhou-based nonprofit organization that specializes in sex education for youth.

Since the sexual rights of the general population are still not sufficient or fully respected, children with mental disorders are given even less attention.

Su Yanwen, 30, is the special education teacher at the NRC. Since 2010, she has worked with students aged 9 to 22 who have mental disabilities, most often autism spectrum disorder or Down syndrome. Usually, other children need about 10 minutes to master the key points of a sex ed class, “but these kids need more than three hours to understand and remember these things,” Su tells Sixth Tone. In classes for special needs students, the teachers also employ more interactive methods, such as having the children draw on the outline of a body to learn the concept of private parts.

Almost every student in the class has a teaching assistant beside them to remind them to stay focused, help them with questions, or correct their behavior — students sometimes scream or walk away for no apparent reason. Parents are asked to wait outside. “Most of the parents can’t help but intervene too much,” Su says. They are invited to join the last 10 minutes of each lesson, when the volunteer teacher explains what their children learned that day.

Su Yanwen (middle) helps a student understand physical changes that come with puberty during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Su Yanwen (middle) helps a student understand physical changes that come with puberty during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

Based on the students’ ages and how well they interact with others, the yearlong course is divided into Class A and Class B. In the former, children learn about the body, how to express affection for others, and how to distinguish public from private. Meanwhile, Class B focuses on the physical changes and sexual urges that accompany puberty. But most importantly, Su emphasizes, “They must know they are in charge of their own bodies.” Students are taught to say no when others touch their private parts; for most children with mental disabilities, recognizing that someone is about to touch a private area is still too difficult, Su says.

There are an estimated 30 million people with mental disabilities in China, more than 10 million of whom have autism. They are more likely to become victims of sexual violence for a variety of reasons, including a lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse, according to Su. Their parents often focus on teaching them to be well-behaved and agreeable to the people around them, which can backfire if they fail to identify a dangerous situation. What’s more, perpetrators have a lower chance of being caught, because their victims might not be able to articulate what happened. Most offenders are relatives or acquaintances.

Media reported in November on an abuse case in the southern city of Nanning, in which a girl with a mental disability had been sexually abused by her 50-year-old neighbor for half a year before her mother found out. She had never received sex education and didn’t realize that what the man did to her was “filthy,” according to the report.

Aside from helping the children learn to protect themselves, the sex education course also aims to teach them appropriate public behavior. After taking the class a few times, 15-year-old Chang Chang, who has autism, has realized that masturbation is “shy” and shouldn’t be done in public. “He now locks the door and covers himself with a blanket,” says his mother.

In many cases, parents come to Su for help after their adolescent kids encounter physical or emotional problems that parents can’t handle or feel too embarrassed to address. Ever since Zi Ping reached puberty, the 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome has refused to be accompanied by female social workers at his boarding school. But he’s gradually making progress since joining the Sunday classes. Tang Feifei, his mother, always asks for a copy of the class materials and reviews them with her son whenever she can. “I’m relieved to see that he’s now okay with a female teaching assistant sitting next to him,” she says.

Tang is an exception to the rule: Most parents find it difficult to talk about sex with their children. “After all, they haven’t received professional education or training, and they are worried they might give children misleading information,” Su says, adding that the most common ways parents explain the differences between male and female bodies include showing pictures or taking showers with their children.

Many Chinese hold conservative views about sex, and plenty of parents consider sex ed unnecessary or unsuitable for children, even as advocates say the country’s sex education is inadequate. In March, parents in the eastern city of Hangzhou complained about sex ed textbooks that taught their second-grade children about sex organs, sexual orientation, and gender equality.

They must know they are in charge of their own bodies.

“Since the sexual rights of the general population are still not sufficient or fully respected, children with mental disorders are given even less attention,” Su says. Established in 2010, the NRC is still the only charity organization in China that provides sex education to children with mental disabilities, according to Su.

In 2009, several special education schools and institutions from Guangzhou invited Glenn S. Quint — an expert on sexuality and disability from the U.S. — to develop sex education courses for children with intellectual disabilities. Su attended the training in 2009 when she was a junior at university. It was the first time she realized that sex is something that can be discussed openly.

Over the past few years, dozens of students at Guangzhou universities who are majoring in special education have volunteered to teach Sunday sex ed lessons through the NRC. The first time he taught a whole class, Lin Huan realized how much repetition was necessary before his pupils understood the material. “I only taught half of what I’d prepared,” says the university sophomore. Lin, who joined the program in September, confesses to Sixth Tone that he is worried he might not have explained the concepts clearly enough to students. After all, he says, “I’m in the process of learning about sex myself.”

A boy with autism circles private parts on a worksheet during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A boy with autism circles private parts on a worksheet during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

Parents play an important role in sex education, regardless of whether their children have disabilities. “We only see the kids for an hour a week,” says Su, “but their parents are with them every second.” Before children begin the NRC course, Su and her team first run workshops for the parents.

When asked what kind of sex organs they know, parents blushed, Su says. “Some of them really do have a hard time saying ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ out loud,” she explains. Some of the parents didn’t know how to write the Chinese characters for sex organs and other body parts. “I was astonished,” Su recalls.

Su’s own parents never taught her about sex. She says she learned about menstruation in fifth grade when a sanitary pad brand held a promotional activity at her school. The girls were given a small box of pads as a gift, she recalls, adding, “I was told not to let the boys see it.” Even today, Su’s parents think it’s shameful for their daughter to teach sex education.

But the potential impact of her classes motivates Su to continue teaching. Once, the mother of a girl with Down syndrome told Su that she was on the subway with her daughter one day, when the girl suddenly asked to switch seats because the man next to her had touched a private area. “This was the most rewarding moment of my work,” Su says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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