Romantic and sexual relationships: Lived experiences of people with complex communication needs. Preliminary findings

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Hence, this research asks: What are the lived experiences of people with complex communication needs in developing romantic or sexual relationships?
What are the barriers and facilitators to developing romantic or sexual relationships for people with complex communication needs?

This research deliberately sought lived experiences and perspectives in an area that is seldom discussed openly, and uses a Critical Hermeneutics phenomenological approach to provide a deeper understanding of experiences. The methodology used is in-depth interviews. Following ethics approval, recruitment was conducted internationally, through social media and listservs, the snowball method using e-mail, and direct approach. The inclusion criteria were that participants: had to be 21 or older; have had a physical and communication disability since childhood; and use AAC. The interviews began with demographic questions then explored participants’ social life and romantic or sexual experiences. These questions were based on the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). Interview transcripts were analysed using NVivo, a qualitative research application.

Nine participants, aged from 21 to 70+, were interviewed. Their AAC strategies included dedicated AAC devices,
mainstream technology and unaided strategies. The six female and three male participants discussed a total of 21
experiences of relationships. Analysis of these experiences identified an approximately equal number of barriers
and facilitators which impacted on the relationships. Some, such as the role of communication devices, was identified as both a barrier and a facilitator. Three themes emerged: personal attributes; interpersonal communication;
and the power of others.

The research suggests that people with complex communication needs can develop romantic and sexual relationships. Yet, the main factors that can impact relationships are attitudes of others (e.g., family members, friends, support staff, potential partners and strangers), their own attitudes and the ability to communicate when being intimate. The findings offer new insights into the lives of adults with complex communication needs. These could have implications for professionals supporting people with complex communication needs to enhance intimate relationships.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventAGOSCI 13th Biennial Conference: Ready, Set, AACtion - Grand Hyatt Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Duration: 17 May 201720 May 2017


ConferenceAGOSCI 13th Biennial Conference
Abbreviated titleAGOSCI 2017
OtherThe conference theme reflects our need to be ready for the arrival of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the effects this will have on the lives of children and adults with little or no speech. “Ready, Set, AACtion” will showcase the best products and services, the latest research and the most inclusive communication practices for people with little or no speech.

The conference is an opportunity for people who use AAC, their families, friends, work colleagues, and people who work within the area of Augmentative and Alternative Communication to come together to share their knowledge and skills. The AGOSCI conference attracts people of all ages and from different sectors of the community.

The four themes of the conference highlight our readiness, preparedness and willingness to act as the NDIS rolls out across Australia. These four themes will guide the content of the conference:

Living with an acquired communication disability
Readiness for work, play and life
Set for successful outcomes for communication and inclusion
Inclusive mealtimes


  • Complex communication needs
  • Relationships
  • Communication disability
  • Sexual relationships


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