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Support young people with disability

While there are plenty of important areas to focus on with young people like where a young person lives and contact with their family, there are other important areas that also require attention to give a young person with disability the best opportunity in life. Depending on a young person’s strengths and needs, views and wishes, stage of life, disability and a variety of other factors will depend on where you focus your support for a young person.

Key support areas

Some of the key support areas for young people you are working with may include:

  • Friendships and connection
  • Puberty, sexuality and sex education
  • Alcohol and other drugs
  • Bullying
  • Employment or study

Friendships and connection

Being a young person is a time for strengthening relationships and connecting to the community, however, social isolation can affect young people with disability. Things that can contribute to social isolation include:

  • Limited friendship networks, or people close to a young person who understand and support them.
  • Limited opportunities in the community to engage in social activities due to limited facilities.
  • Stigma and negative stereotyping of people with disabilities.
  • Issues with transport and finances which can limit opportunities for accessing venues and events (The State of Queensland, 2019).

Make sure that you explore with a young person their feelings of connectedness to others, their interests, and their ability and desire to participate in events and activities that are enjoyable and meaningful to them. If there are barriers to the young person connecting with others or participating in activities, include these worries in the child’s case plan and engage supports for the young person to overcome these barriers.  Remember too that there may be times when a young person has less of a desire than their peers to develop and maintain friends.

Watch this video from Raising Children Network Australia on friendship and socialising for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder. ASD disability educator Katharine Annears reminds us of the importance of listening to the voices of young people when it comes to their choice of friends or activities, and shares the experiences of parents whose teenagers have ASD.

A young person may be experiencing social isolation or may feel adequately connected and supported. Regardless of where a young person is at, completing a Circles of Safety and Support Tool with them can help identify the key supports in their life and work towards increasing their network. A young person can never have too many friends or people to turn to!

Disability Support Queensland has a range of resources on their website for Queensland people living with a disability. Visit their section on ‘Services’ to explore social activities that young people you are working with may benefit from.

Puberty, sexuality and sex education

Young people with disability require the same education and support about puberty, sex and healthy relationships as any young person who does not have a disability. Many children and young people you work with, particularly those in foster or kinship care and residential care, may not have had the opportunity to engage in important conversations with their parents or a trusted caregiver about their bodies, sex and sexuality, therefore, ensuring support and education for young people on these topics is critical. In addition to the usual considerations around when and how to have these conversations such as the age of the child and their interest in learning or knowing about this topics, the type of disability a young person has can also influence the way in which these conversations occur. For example, education on puberty and sexuality for a young person with an intellectual disability will differ greatly than the same education for a young person who has a sensory disability.


Sexuality has psychological, biological and social aspects, and is influenced by individual values and attitudes. A person’s sexuality develops throughout childhood and adolescence, and is a key part of their identity. The way each person understands and interprets their sexuality varies significantly, and often changes over time. Healthy self-esteem and respect for self and others are important factors in developing positive sexuality” (Family Planning Victoria, 2016).

In consultation with the young person and significant people in their life, make a plan about who will be responsible for educating the young person on important topics relating to puberty, sexuality and sex education. These conversations go beyond one chat, so making sure the young person has access to a trusted person to talk to about these topics an ongoing basis is important. If the young person is exploring or has a diverse gender, sex or sexuality, this is important to be aware of too!


Many of the young people you work with, including those with disability, may have diverse genders, sex, and sexualities. Open doors is an organisation for young people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Asexual, Pansexual, Sistergirl or Brotherboy (LGBTIQAP+ Sistergirl & Brotherboy) aged 12-24 across South East Queensland. Visit the website for further information.

Family Planning Victoria provide tips for parents and caregivers on talking to children with cognitive disabilities about sex. Family Planning New South Wales have a variety of factsheets in a series ‘All about sex’ for educating people with an intellectual disability on safe sex, healthy bodies, sexual assault and other important topics that all young people require education on. They also provide a guide on the importance of the fact sheets and how to use them.

This resource developed by the Raising Children Network Australia provides advice to parents and caregivers on preparing for puberty with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.


In 2018, 120 LGBTIQ youth leaders came together in Victoria to participate in workshops to have their say on issues that mattered to them. These were published in the Young and queer report. 12% of the participants identified as living with disability. One of the most important issues identified by the group was “for secondary school sexual education to be inclusive of information on same gender sexual practice, consent and asexual experiences”, with many young people citing the education they received was irrelevant as it focused around heterosexual and cisgender experiences. Read the full report to develop an understanding of important issues for queer young people.

Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD)

Young people with disability require education, information and support in relation to drugs and alcohol. Regardless of the nature of the person’s disability, it is likely that they will be exposed to or be offered drugs or alcohol at some stage in their adolescent years and may result in experimenting with drugs or actively using. For many children in care, parental drug and alcohol use may have been a key or contributing factor as to why they came into care, so they will have existing experiences and attitudes towards alcohol and other drugs.


In addition to other risk factors that can increase the likelihood a young person will become dependent on AOD such as traumatic childhood experiences, parental substance use and the age they started using substances, the nature of a young person’s disability can also be a risk factor for developing an AOD problem.

For example, young people with depression or other mental health disorders may use AOD as a maladaptive coping mechanism. A person with an intellectual disability may use substances problematically due to their ability to problem solve, detect danger or navigate social norms. Young people who have FASD may come from a family where the dangers of alcohol use were never discussed or known about. For more information on problematic AOD use in young people and working effectively with them, visit Working with young people and alcohol and other drug use in the practice kit Alcohol and other drugs. 

Regardless of whether the young person you are working with has limited understanding of drugs or alcohol or is actively using drugs and alcohol, discuss with the young person and their safety and support network the best way they can access education, support and/or treatment regarding AOD.

For information on alcohol and drugs, visit the practice kit Alcohol and other drugs.


Young people with disability are more likely to be victims of bullying than their peers who don’t have a disability. Bullying, such as name-calling, physical violence, cyber bullying and exclusion from peers can have significant impacts on the wellbeing and mental health of young people. Routinely ask young people you are working with about their experiences at school including their experiences of being bullied or engaging in bullying behaviour so support can be implemented to address the issue.

The Department of Education and Training is committed to ensuring every student with a disability succeeds, including being able to learn in a safe environment free from bullying and harassment. Ensure that the young person’s school is immediately alerted to the bullying behaviour so they can take action.

Practice prompt

If you are working with a child in care, make sure that the issue of bullying is addressed as part of their Education Support Plan (refer to Procedure 5 Make sure an education support plan is developed).

Employment or study

Employment is an issue for young people around the globe, however young people with disability are at even greater risk of unemployment, partial employment, or employment with lower wages (Groce, 2004). For the young people you work with in care, employment or study options must be included in their transition to adulthood plan to ensure they have all necessary supports to achieve their goals. For further information on transitioning to adulthood, visit Procedure 5 Support a young person's transition to adulthood.

The National Disability Coordination Officer Program have developed helpful workbooks for young people with disability in relation to study and work. Click here to access the workbook for young people with disability. Click here to access the workbook for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people with disability.

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