Photographing Kids with Special Needs

I recently received a phone call from a fellow photographer, “I have a shoot with a child with special needs – any tips?”

I have found that parents of kids with special needs tend to come to a shoot anxious.  And that’s despite the fact that they are generally referred by another parent who has worked with me before.  Their palpable concern makes me wonder how many times they have witnessed their child being met with impatience and unkindness.

While I have identified locations that are particularly great for a range of special needs and have all kinds of fun toys that range from tactile to auditory, I find it’s trial and error with each child as to what is going to reach them. But most important is making sure it’s obvious to the parents that my primary goal is to make sure the child has a great experience.

If the parents are relaxed, the child will be more relaxed and the pictures will be great.  Of course, having significant patience and being very flexible is critical. If something isn’t working, I quickly move on to something else. To be honest, I’m the same as on any other shoot — just more so.

Here are some kids from that shoot in Mississippi I talked about in my last post.  I had just a minute or so to get these shots.


Many of the special needs children I photograph are on the Autism spectrum.  Generally, the most severe have been in foster care.  I did photograph one child who I just couldn’t reach. The job was to photograph a 15 year old boy with severe autism for the Heart Gallery.

It was one of two times in my career that I was unable to connect with a child.  I tried everything I could think of and anxiously raced home to see what I had. The best image, was actually a decent artistic shot.

But the Heart Gallery isn’t about artistic photography, it’s about getting a passerby to stop dead in their tracks when they see a portrait of a child. It’s about that photograph inspiring them to grab the information card to follow-up to find out more about adopting him or her. Frankly, vulnerable looking children are more likely to get that reaction.

Unfortunately, I had gotten the shot by shooting from the ground, up at the boy. While his expression was pleasant and the angle was interesting, shooting up at an older, large child can make him or her appear a bit menacing.

Determined to do what I could to help this boy get adopted, back I went. His foster mother and I each had a list of ideas, while I ended up with some good images, this was to important to be satisfied with something that was merely good.

The foster mother and I set about scheduling another try.  Before we could get together again, Child and Family Services determined that the boy was not a candidate for adoption. It was hard to hear that this boy with so many needs, would never have loving parents of his own.

That experience is the very far end of the spectrum though, most children with special needs are just like anyone else, they need the photographer to understand where they are coming from and to meet them there.

Note: To protect the privacy of the foster child, I am not posting his picture.

Another note: I can’t for the life of me figure out how to put the pictures in the place I want them… tips welcome!

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