Young people with special needs create sessions to educate peers on sexual health

Mandy Wilmot
Monday, August 26, 2019

Volunteering charity is supporting more than 500 young people with learning disabilities or autism to learn about sexual education and lead awareness-raising activities.

  • Provider Volunteering Matters
  • Name Sexual Awareness for Everyone (Safe)

All young people deserve to have access to information and advice on relationships and sexual health. But young people who have learning disabilities or autism who have specific needs and requirements for tailored information and advice are often overlooked, and as a result end up in difficult or unsafe situations.

To address this, charity Volunteering Matters which specialises in volunteering practice, partnerships and policy, is working with volunteers in Gwent to provide sexual education and awareness for young people with learning disabilities helping reduce the risk of sexual exploitation and abusive relationships.

This service, called Sexual Awareness for Everyone (Safe), enables volunteers - who are also young people with learning disabilities, autism or other learning needs - to deliver sessions covering topics including awareness on what a healthy relationship is, consent and sexual health.

The project began in 2017 with grants from the Welsh government's tampon tax fund, and Greater Gwent Intermediate Care Fund. It was originally tailored to address the needs of young women with learning disabilities, but the project's volunteers now run sessions on topics such as personal hygiene during menstruation, body image, bullying, sexual harassment and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) issues.

In September 2018, Safe Male was launched and this year Volunteering Matters received additional funding from Gwent Association of Voluntary Organisations to deliver new sessions tailored to meet these needs. These were of a very serious nature - often very different to the topics covered with the female groups.

Using the same peer-led model as the original Safe project, Safe Male uses specialist materials designed with young men with learning disabilities who volunteer and deliver workshop sessions to mixed or single-sex groups.

The success of Safe meant that young men with learning disabilities or autism were being referred into the project with a hope that the sessions would be able to address some of the issues they were experiencing, such as displaying inappropriate behaviours of a sexual nature towards others or engaging in risky sexual behaviour that could cause harm to others and possibly lead to criminal proceedings. These young men needed information on subjects such as the negative impact of pornography, a lack of knowledge about what are public or private spaces, and what it is appropriate to do in these areas.

As the volunteers who deliver the sessions have learning disabilities or autism themselves, they have been able to design and develop resources and activities that are directly relevant to the participants of Safe. Peer-led volunteering has been key to its success as it empowers participants to help themselves. The volunteers also benefit, developing skills and confidence which in turn improves their own mental wellbeing and creates opportunities for them to help others and actively participate in their local communities.

The volunteers have helped champion the rights of people with disabilities - including their rights to have relationships - and have reduced stigmas around sex and people with disabilities. Safe volunteers were even commissioned to contribute to a toolkit made by Children in Wales to assist social workers in supporting their young service users to have safe and healthy relationships.

Safe has recruited and trained almost 60 peer volunteers who have helped deliver workshops to over 500 participants in Gwent. The project was shortlisted for the National Diversity Awards in 2018, and won the Co-Production Award in Wales.

By Mandy Wilmot, volunteer manager, Volunteering Matters

Alex, a volunteer with Safe

"I didn't have many friends and found it difficult to meet new people. In March 2017 I started volunteering on the Safe project and found that I fitted in well with the other young women on the project. I really enjoyed the activities and workshops and wanted to help more young people understand how to keep safe in relationships.

"I was part of the pilot group of young women with learning disabilities who helped make the activities that we currently use in Safe workshops. My willpower and motivation will keep me volunteering and I am proud of what I am doing and that I am making a difference."

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