Cleveland area family + newborn photographer 

Preparing and Photographing Children with Special Needs

Cleveland, Ohio Photographer, Lindsay Wilson

Family photography is for everyone.

Have kids with special needs? You deserve a professional photography session too.

little girl looking away from the camera and smiling
just a cell phone grab of this little girl, who, in a big way, inspired my photography journey.

Here’s a peek into my story; I’m a mom to three incredible kids, one of which is autistic and mostly non-verbal. Part of the reason I became a photographer is actually because of my wonderful daughter. Like many autistic people, my daughter struggles with transitions and new situations. This is especially difficult for her when her routine is thrown off and she is face to face with a stranger who is trying to get her in the frame. I’m working every day to make sure that these issues will get better for her as she gets older, however right now it’s really hard for her when she is unprepared. Throw in the mix two other rambunctious brothers, a new location, an outfit she might not like, and a person she just met clicking a big camera in her face, and it’s basically a recipe for disaster and can make our attempts for our annual family photos really hard not just for her, but for everyone. Now, don’t get me wrong; her comfort and feeling of safety are the most important aspects, and my job to provide, and always will be. But I love to photograph her, and feel a physical need to document our family every year – so here’s some of the things I do as a photographer to help her (and myself) prepare, and also how I adapt my sessions to accommodate children with special needs, and really all children in general!

  1. Prepare prepare prepare! Talk about having photos done ahead of time. If my family is about to have a photo session, I start talking to all my kids about it daily about a week or two ahead of time. Just a short little “hey, remember we have family photos coming up soon!” can help tremendously. That way they’ve had multiple opportunities to ask questions (and they always do), see their outfit choices, and talk with me about what to expect. This way they aren’t surprised by the event day-of.
  2. When families let me know ahead of time if they have a special needs child (usually this is easily done by answering the questionnaire I send out to all of my families) I can bring along my bag of tricks. I have sensory items, small books, fidget spinners and pop-its inside, and usually these little things are enough to distract and get the session back on track if it gets bumpy.
  3. Bubbles! I simply cannot say enough good things about bubbles. Not only do they act as a lovely ice breaker and tantrum modifier, but they bring a sense of whimsy and fun to family photos! I love them, and always try to have them on hand.
  4. In situations where someone absolutely needs a break, I will always have recommendations of a calm down area/safe spot at the session. Personal items from home absolutely help in these situations too, and I highly recommend you bring them if we are photographing outside your home.
  5. If you are attracted to my style of photography, it’s highly likely that you prefer documentary style rather than posed style of photography. I prefer to arrange my families rather than pose them – if that makes sense, and that also means that all children (neurodivergent or not) are usually more comfortable and much more likely to enjoy the whole process!
  6. I will absolutely send a short video to parents ahead of the session to introduce myself to the kiddos if asked! Sometimes just having a face to put to a name is all it takes to feel more comfortable.
  7. I 100% encourage families to visit our preferred location ahead of time, if we are photographing outside of your home. This way you can visit the area, without the stress of an immediate session beginning, and your kiddos can explore it and get comfortable there without a timeline.
  8. Always (always!!) have snacks and drinks available for everyone (parents included!) in your family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought my kids were just being grumpy for no reason when really the entire problem was solved with a snack. If your kids are anything like mine, you know that snacks are life!
  9. Let the kids be kids. This is not a time to demand obedience. Part of what makes your family special are their unique personalities. Playing in the sand, dirt, water, finding bugs, picking flowers – all of these non traditional photo activities are like gold to me and bring a lovely diversity and insight into your finished family gallery.
  10. When we’re done – we’re done! Kids run the show, am I right? ha! But in all seriousness, I won’t ever force kids to continue when they are clearly exhausted and need to get back to the safety of their normal day and routine.

Those are my top tips for photographing kids in general. I have a lot of experience with kids with ADHD and Autism. I love how fun and diverse sessions with them are. I love how nontraditional their finished photos come out. Documenting families is where my heart is, and all families deserve to have beautiful photos.

Check out these recent photos of my daughter’s 7th birthday photo session – she is autistic and has a severe language delay, but none of that matters in the moment and she absolutely rocked her photo session with her mama. My heart is so full because now I have these photos of her forever, of her absolutely awesome, beautiful, amazing self. I prepared her for a week ahead of time before we went out and did these photos. I talked and talked and talked about it until she started repeating back to me that we were going to do photos. I have to say, the first time I mentioned that we were going to do them, she told me no. But I kept on preparing her, and when the day came she was happy and excited, and loved spending time with me while I was snapping away. Prep is key. Prep for transitions is key. We obviously don’t do photos like this every day, so preparing her ahead of time is where the real success happened.

So, this is how I approach sessions with kids, especially kids with additional needs and more supports. Every family should have beautiful photos, and with enough prep the whole process becomes very simple. Family photos with kids should be fun and easy, not stressful. Not every photo needs to be of your kids looking at the camera, to be honest I find those photos to be the most uninspiring. If you notice above, my daughter is only looking at the camera in 3 images out of the whole collection. Kids looking at the camera and doing a forced “cheese” smile doesn’t show me who they are, what their personality is like. It just shows me that they’ve been coached to perform. I want to capture meaningful details, who they are, a range of expressions and not just the standard smile. When we let some of our ingrained need to control go, we end up with a collection of images that really show who our children are. And that is what I seek to do when kids, regardless of special needs, are in front of my camera.

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Preparing and Photographing Children with Special Needs

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