Program Profile

Feature Issue on Sexuality and Gender Identity for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Promoting a Growth Mindset


David Hicks is an academic program manager at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand.

Four people sit around a table playing cards.

Author David Hicks shares a laugh with Unitec students.

Our two-year certificate program at Unitec Institute of Technology is called the New Zealand Certificate in Skills for Living, Learning, and Working. It is for neurodivergent students navigating higher education, and we have a course in the program that focuses on identity and well-being. We don’t start with sexuality and gender; we just start with who you are.

In New Zealand, there is a cultural acceptance of gender and sexual diversity that stems from the Māori and Pasifika cultures. For hundreds of years, it has been accepted in Pasifika cultures that there are more than two genders, for example. There are still legal and political battles being fought, but there is more cultural acceptance here of gender diversity than in many countries. Starting with that acceptance, we move into neurodiversity and how that plays a role in developing sexual and gender identity.

We do activities and role plays, asking students to step outside their comfort zones and imagine different identities and scenarios. We discuss pornography and talk about different kinds of sex. About a month into the course, I do an evening presentation to share with families the structure of the course and our concept of a growth mindset. I plant the seed with families that these young people are in a developmental stage, and our role is to build up their resources and information so they can make informed choices. We have activities for students to take home and discuss with family, and activities that they take away and think about on their own. Families with a strong religious background may at first be triggered by these conversations into a defensive posture and a feeling that their child isn’t ready. We have encouraged families to talk within their communities about the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and what that means for a young person at the beginning of their adult lives.

Within the identity course, we talk about concepts like independence compared with interdependence and having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Then, we bring these concepts into in-depth discussions about gender, sexuality, and identity. In a growth mindset in this context, the intention is to assist the students’ understanding of their identity, allowing them to define themselves positively and individually, rather than through static labels that can be summarily judged as failure, bad, or wrong. I see many students relax when they learn that some aspects of this part of their identities can be more fluid. This growth mindset is a massive part of our philosophy, our values and pedagogy.

We also arm the families with questions they can ask their young adults to get conversations going. We show them how to keep it real, so to speak, and not annoy their young adult too much. Usually, the responses are really positive. Sometimes parents will acknowledge that they know their child needs to learn and experience all of this, but with all their other struggles and burdens, it just seems like so much to put on them. I help them realize this is the world and they can’t escape it. The challenge in front of them right now is to demonstrate love and acceptance. Often, families start out as overprotective, but they eventually come to realize that they are disabling these young people by keeping things from them.

It's part of our culture to not be scared away from courageous conversations.

It's part of our culture to not be scared away from courageous conversations. To do that, everyone has to feel safe. Some students with disabilities have had a terrible time in an institution or a secondary education system that failed them, so their defense mechanisms are high and their self-esteem is low. So, we start with all the different identities someone has, and build up their emotional intelligence. Identity is not just one thing. Then, we build on the different types of relationships people can have. We talk about boyfriends, girlfriends, friends with benefits, relationships with parents, and others, and about the fact that it’s OK to feel confused or allow space for all kinds of emotions. We talk about not getting offended if one month, someone is holding your hand, and the next month, they’re not. Things change, and we talk about that.

For serious legal issues like consent, we bring in outside experts. We’ve used Mates and Dates, a program for students that addresses all types of violence in relationships. We support the ideals in the program by stressing relentless communication. After they have been here, I’ll typically have several closed-door sessions with individuals who say, “Ah, that’s actually happening in my life.”

We also have posters in every room reminding students of their rights and responsibilities around consent and other topics, and we talk about the fact that they are responsible for their own actions and words. How do you say something if you know it might cause someone to feel weird? Or communicate that you’ve changed your mind? We have nonverbal students using assistive communication devices, and we’ve helped them add phrases like “I disagree,” or “That’s a good point, but I’d like to say this.” For some neurodivergent students, to express a different opinion is a massive task, so it’s important to provide tools that help them explain their actual wishes. We offer mindfulness meditation, yoga, some nutrition guidance – all things they can add to their bag of skills to regulate their emotions and to deal with those times when they are uncomfortable or angry.

In the core module around sex and gender identity, we don’t shy away from any topic. We start with sex, conception, and sex with different types of partners. If you’re bisexual, what does that mean? Pornography addiction is a massive problem, so at what point does consuming it become unhealthy?

We’re challenging the status quo pretty often here. Recently, two students with physical disabilities were making out in a student gathering area, and staff members came to me asking if they should be doing that. My answer was, “Shouldn’t they be? It’s something that hundreds of other students are doing every day.”

Some of our students and I have appeared on Down for Love, a television series that features young adults with Down syndrome and their quest for dating relationships. The show has been a chance to highlight some of the issues we discuss in our class for a broader audience, but as a field, we need more resources and tools for helping young people develop into all of their identities. We have resources for transitioning into work, into living arrangements, into tertiary education, but there are very few resources on developing a growth mindset for becoming who you are and then forming the relationships that can add such meaning to life.

Subscribe to Impact