Photographing Children with Special Needs

by guest contributor Megan Drane

There are many types of photographers in our over-saturated industry, but there is one area that is still sorely neglected.  While there are countless baby and child photographers out there, very few are working with special needs children.

If you photograph children, it is likely that you have worked with a special needs child at least once.  If not, you will.  With 17% of American families having special needs children, it is only a matter of time before you will be asked to test your skills in this area. If you do not have personal experience with special needs, it is worth the time to determine if you should take such a session, and if you do, to be prepared.  I bring up if you should take such a session, because maybe you shouldn’t.  Photographing special needs children is not for everyone, just like wedding photography isn’t for everyone.  I don’t have the lenses needed, nor the experience to do a good job with a wedding.  I’ve been asked to do weddings, but I always turn them down because I know my limitations, and I always want to produce superior work.  If you aren’t extremely patient and flexible in your approach with sessions, then don’t bother with special needs photography.  Parents have enough experiences with people who judge or just show their displeasure with their children, photography doesn’t need to be another one.  All parents should be able to get beautiful portraits of their children.

Breaking Down Special Needs

I am not a medical professional, so everything I am about to say comes from a mother of a special needs child, and a professional who works with many areas of special needs.  Disabilities/special needs can be broken down into three categories (in terms of how we see them):  cognitive, physical, and behavioral.  Many diagnoses fall into more than one category, but it helps to think in these terms when approaching a session.

Physical issues are by far the easiest to deal with as a photographer.  They may take some creativity on your part in terms of posing or positioning children in flattering ways, but these require little “work” on your part.  For example, when a five year old child has severe hypotonia and cannot sit on their own or struggles to hold up their head, then you work with chairs and sofas or on the floor.  Again, these situations require just a bit of creativity.

Cognitive issues can be more difficult, but I find the best way to approach the subject is by their cognitive age – not biological.  Speak to children at the level that is appropriate for them.  This also helps in terms of how you come across to the parents.  If you know and understand that the 10 year old you are about to photograph has the mental acuity of a five year old, you will be far less frustrated when that child isn’t as responsive or attentive as a typical 10 year old.  Setting your expectations can make all the difference, as parents know if a photographer is frustrated with their child.

The hardest to work with are behavioral issues (which stem from a multitude of reasons).  Understanding sensory processing disorders is probably the key point for an outsider, as it is foreign to most people.  To an outsider, sensory issues would present as behavioral issues in response to stimuli that we do not  understand.  If you want to take the time to educate yourself, I highly recommend the book The Out of Sync Child.  Heck, Google “sensory processing disorder” and just read.  There is no quick and easy rule that will make such sessions easy, but educating yourself and being patient are good starters.

Working with Autism
I have photographed children with cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Downs’ Syndrome, chromosome 18q syndrome, duplication of chromosome 16p11.2, Trisomy 18, sensory processing disorders, and all forms of autism.  I’m known as “the autism photographer”, and I must say that by far, the most difficult subjects are those with autism.  Not all, but in terms of  educating photographers, this is the area where you need to look within yourself to decide if you can provide a great service for such a family.  And if you can’t, refer elsewhere.  Like I said before, we all have our specialties, and no one needs to feel badly about not taking sessions outside their comfort zone.

Many of these children are more difficult to direct than the average child, and if you push  too much, it is easy to hit a wall with them or make them angry.  This means a lot of improvisation on my part. I have to do a lot of moving with them.

Tips for working with subjects with autism:
· Ask about sensory sensitivities (will studio lights be a problem?  Can you touch the subject?)
· Ask about the subject’s interests (those on the spectrum are usually extremely interested in a certain subject – trains, super heroes, doors, etc).  Know these and talk about them during the session to build trust
· Ask what makes the subject calm and happy (those on the spectrum typically do stimming behaviors that are repetitive motions such as spinning, flapping, rocking.  If you see such activity, it is your cue to back off and take a break, as the subject is most likely getting overstimulated)
· Ask what sort of bribe you can offer – if you are the sort to offer bribes, which I am.  For normal sessions, I offer Smarties as bribes, but many children on the spectrum are also on a GF/CF diet.  Asking upfront builds trust with the parent, and they can offer input.
· Ask the parent what will help you be successful.  This opens the dialogue to specific quirks or behaviors that you need to know about.  For example, does this child tend to repetitively poke people?  If so, you need to know this and know that they aren’t being “bad”, but are trying to communicate with you.

Another major and obvious challenge with autistic subjects is eye contact and engagement.  My number one tip to photographers is to know what the child is really interested in.  Have the parents have something handy – if the child is really into Thomas the Train, I place the train on top of my lens.  Eye contact is easier to achieve if you aren’t trying to get the child to look directly at you or the camera.  Place something on the lens (skittles, smarties, lens pet, toy).  If the child is higher functioning, I’ve told them that my camera is a robot and the lens is its eye, and the eye blinks at people it likes.  Then I ask them to see if it blinks at them.  This can get them looking directly into the camera and engaged, though not usually smiling.

Asking a child on the spectrum to smile is most likely not going to result in a natural looking smile.  My son is a great example:

He has the most beautiful smile, and is truly a joyous person, but any time I bring out a camera, he looks like he is in pain or constipated.  Getting him really laughing, on the other hand, results in the expressions that I see in him, and that is what parents want.  In this image, my husband was behind me pretending to be a zombie about to attack me.

How to be Successful
When a client books with me, we have a conversation about their particular child, that child’s specific needs and challenges, so I can walk in the door knowing their child and having the best odds to succeed.  We decide if bringing my studio lights and equipment will be too disruptive, or if lifestyle images would be best.  I am blessed to know my own best skills – and paramount among them is my patience with children.  They do not get under my skin, no matter the behavior.  In fact, in my client contract which I make clients sign, my #1 rule is that there will be NO apologizing for their child’s behavior.

There are really two parts to having success with photographing special needs children. First is making the parents happy.  Parents of special needs children are not quite the same as parents of typical children.  Usually, these parents have had to fight for their children, they have to protect them from stares and mean remarks.  These parents have usually had bad experiences in the past, and this includes bad experiences with photographers who were impatient.  If you show some effort in understanding their child, they will appreciate you SO MUCH.  Get images that show the child that they love and see in the intimate moments at home, and they are yours forever.

The second part of being successful is building a bond with the child.  I always judge a good session by if a child leaves thinking it was fun.  If they had a good time, then I just altered their perception of having their pictures taken.  And in case I haven’t mentioned it in the past few minutes, the single biggest factor to being successful with special needs children is PATIENCE.

About the Author:  Megan Drane of Firefly Nights Photography is based in the western suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.  While being a baby and child photographer, she has focused on photographing children with special needs for the past two years since her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.  She is a wife and has two children, one of whom is turning her grey and making her question her parenting skills, and the other has special needs.  She likes to eat too much good food and reads too many books.  In fact, she is a published writer and holds a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Writing and hopes to someday figure out how to squeeze writing back into her life.

She is an active member of the Professional Photographers of America and is a volunteer photographer for Inspiration Through Art (previously Littlest Heroes Project).  She was named a 2011 Director’s Choice by Stories of Autism, been featured on Chicago’s ABC News as well as,  and showcased by Autism Society of Illinois.  Next month, she will be photographing the families of the national support group for Trisomy. Her work has also been featured on the cover of the international magazine Autism File and within special needs calendars.

You can learn more about Megan and follow her work at her Website or stalk her Blog or FaceBook page.

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Carrie Carpunky - July 8, 2011 - 8:47 am

Thanks so much for this article!! I too am mom to a special needs child. My daughter is 10 & has Spina Bifida. She cannot stand without log legged braces & crutches. I remember in her early years, going to a studio to have her 1st birthday pictures done & the photographer wanted her to stand next to the #1. Why I couldn’t get it thru his head that she could not stand, I just didn’t understand.

This is an area I would love to learn more about. I would love to be able to offer special needs moms the beautiful photos that all of their friends have!

Kayla Denniston - July 8, 2011 - 9:04 am

What an awesome article!!! I have a younger cousin who is special needs! I wish there were more photographers like you around! Thank you for posting this.

Melanie Poteat - July 8, 2011 - 9:20 am

Great article! As a pediatric nurse turned photographer- I have always wanted to market to special needs children but haven’t been sure how to approach the sensitive area. This article is very inspiring! Thank you!

Meghan stewart - July 8, 2011 - 9:24 am

This is great! I am a photographer, former social worker, mom of a beautiful daughter with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome (plus 2 boys). You are doing exactly what I want to do! A photography mentor told me “there’s no money in the disability field” but that’s not exactly the point for me. I live in St. Louis – do you ever mentor newbie photographers?

Great post! Thank you.

Lisa Crosby - July 8, 2011 - 9:50 am

I am a teacher and a photographer and and aunt to a sweet and beautiful child with higher functioning autism. This article is so good. I love my special needs students and parents and this article encourages me to help them capture their kids loveliness and charm. It does take a special patience to work with any kids…you have to love them first!

Laura Harmasch - July 8, 2011 - 10:02 am

Megan thanks for the great article! Your right, patience is the key. I am a pediatric occupational therapist and photographer in the Western Suburbs of Chicago. I repeatedly have parents tell me that their children fall apart just walking into a photo studio. I think it is so important to be able to help parents capture treasured moments with their kids regardless of their special needs.

Jaime - July 8, 2011 - 10:04 am

Great article!! I am just getting into photography, but one of the things I know I want to focus on is special needs. My nephew has CMV and there just arent enough people who want to photograph special needs kids!

Thank you!!

Daniela Pacheco - July 8, 2011 - 10:28 am

I loooooved this article, just what I needed to read.
I never thought about special needs kids photography until last months mommy & me mini sessions that a mom arrived with a down syndrome 3 year old. She didn’t tell me in advance and the only thing that worried me when I saw him was that the limited time of mini sessions was not going to be enough.
I didn’t know what to ask but in a quick assessment I realized he was behaving as a 10 or 12 month old baby, so I behaved as I do in a baby session and we got some great shoots. I was so happy to have had that opportunity and mom was so grateful for my patience that it was overwhelming for me.

Kathy - July 8, 2011 - 11:09 am

You are so inspiring! What a wonderful experience. Thank you so much for sharing!

JenC - July 8, 2011 - 1:14 pm

What a great article and beautiful shots!!!! I LOVE these kids.

Kim Hayes Photography - July 8, 2011 - 10:19 pm

Thank you so much for this article. I am a teacher of special needs. I just finished 23 years. I am also a photographer. I just had my first session with a newborn two weeks ago with special needs. I have often wondered why God puts me places or brings people into my path when he does. I am so grateful and blessed to have worked with special needs for so long. I would love to be able to extend this into my photography. I have “The Out of Sync Child” book. I also recommend it. More information on how to market to parents of special needs would be helpful. Thank you for your inspiration. Kim Hayes

Jill - July 9, 2011 - 2:43 am

These images just warm my heart! What beautiful photos, great post!

Anne - July 9, 2011 - 3:33 am

A beautiful and sensitive article, thank you so much. Also a mother to a child with spina bifida,through our son’s disability we discovered the Sporting Wheelies in Australia. I have taken many photos of wheelchair basketball over the years and count myself fortunate to be able to capture the fun, excitement and challenges that disability in sport can provide.

Stacey Dawn - July 9, 2011 - 1:46 pm

This post rocked!
Beautiful images and thanks so much for the ideas!

jamie delight - July 9, 2011 - 8:08 pm

Great article, I have toddler triplets– 2 of which have been diagnosed with Autism so it actually helped me remember how difficult (yet successful!) its been to photograph my own children. I think I’ve always been too hard on myself to get those perfect images (eye contact ones).

Tony Mars - July 11, 2011 - 9:27 pm

Megan Drane, you made an beautiful post. I am also photographer and I am so happy that some people still care about children with special needs.

Gretchen - July 14, 2011 - 12:41 am

Thank you for this great article. I’ve photographed an autistic boys several times and it was a challenge but by being patient and slowly working my way into his trust we got some nice shots. I never anticipated how grateful the parents would be for my patience and an end result with eye contact and a smile. With your guidelines I feel like I can continue to gain confidence in this area.

Krystin Phethean - July 18, 2011 - 7:07 pm

As a Mother of 2 autisitc children, this warms my heart!! One of the BIGGEST reasons I have wanted to learn to better My personal photography is due to my children. Thank You so much!! You have inspired me, and reassured me that there are beautiful human beings in this world!! I loved these pictures!! Amazing!!

Amy - July 26, 2011 - 6:05 pm

What a great article! I have done a few sessions with special needs kids and have found them so much more fulfilling to me personally than a “regular” child session. I would like to do more sessions with special needs kids but I am not sure how to get into it more. Do you have any suggestions for reaching out to that community and letting parents know that I welcome the opportunity to work with them? Sadly I have known a few families turned away by other photographers…

Alicia Mackenzie - July 27, 2011 - 1:57 pm

I just read your article and I love it. I so want to photograph high need kids, its been budding in the back of my mind for several months. I have them in my house and heart. Your article reminded me to have the patients with them that I do with other kids who are special too. I love to get smiles, or looks from those who do usually give them. Especially for the parents, who sometimes need “normal” moments.

savannah lewis - November 9, 2011 - 8:00 pm

EXCELLENT article!! I especially love the idea of your camera being a robot and its lens is the robot’s eye… genius!

Elizabeth Zoppa - March 17, 2013 - 10:43 am

Thank you so much for this article. I am a photographer and a Nursery School teacher who has special needs children in my classroom. Part of my program is to make a photo memory book for the families. I am excited to use your tips and tricks and I’m glad to be reminded to just be patient. I would enjoy more articles on this subject particularly why a shot worked or didn’t. Please keep them coming.

Dave - May 21, 2013 - 2:08 am

I realize this article has been here for a while, but I just now found it. Thanks.

Arlene Reiff - August 17, 2013 - 11:20 am

Thanks for all your tips. I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination. But I have a niece that has pervasive developmental disorder which is in the autism spectrum. I could relate to what you were saying regarding the overstimulation and trying to capture a natural smile. She is beautiful but her forced smile looks like a little monster :). I will try some of your techniques, we are taking some family pictures at the beach this weekend. She knows what the camera does but I’d like to capture her natural facial expressions not the cheesy forced ones. Patience is a virtue when taking pictures of children and animals :).

Thanks again

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