Important Qualities To Have When Working With Developmentally Disabled

Suppose you are considering becoming a special education teacher or thinking about working with people with disabilities. In that case, you may wonder what the most important qualities to have when working with developmentally disabled people are.

Working with children with special needs or people with disabilities (which can present in a variety of different ways) requires some very special personality traits and skills. This guide will explain all the important qualities to have when working with disabled populations — the most critical social and work-related skills and abilities you need to excel when working with children and adults who have developmental disabilities and other special needs.

Understanding the Differences of People With Disabilities

Even among people with the same diagnosis, symptoms and presentation can differ greatly — and there are a great many different diagnoses under the same umbrella. For example, intellectual disabilities are a particular kind of disability, but they can also be considered a type of developmental disability. Specific diagnosis among intellectual and developmental disabilities span a wide range of categories, abilities, and diagnostic criteria.

Being successful in this field of work absolutely requires understanding how developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities in particular — and the many other types of special needs in general — are different. You should also know the variety of different physical and mental disabilities that exist (often in combination with developmental disabilities), potentially requiring the intervention or assistance of a special education teacher or other qualified professional.

Being able to understand that two people with the same disability may have very different requirements is one of the most important qualities to have when working with developmentally disabled people.

What Are Developmental Disabilities?

Many different types of developmental disabilities exist. Again, the term is largely an umbrella to describe a variety of impairments or limitations of function in language, learning, behavior, or the physical aspects of someone’s life. Developmental disabilities occur before an individual reaches the age of 22. They are life-long disabilities that may present, among other things, as a disruption to or because of a change in:

  • Nervous system dysfunction
  • Sensory processing
  • Metabolic function
  • Degeneration of function or ability

Some developmental disabilities are strictly intellectual, such as learning disabilities. Some may be purely physical, like congenital blindness. Still others, such as Down Syndrome, can encompass both physical and intellectual aspects of life.

Diagnosing Developmental Disabilities

Many parents notice something is wrong when their child fails to reach typical developmental milestones. Developmental disabilities may relate to impaired functioning when compared to neurotypical functioning. These types of disabilities occur across all socioeconomic and ethnic groups and regardless of sex or gender.

For an appropriate diagnosis (and thus appropriate interventions) to be made, a parent, caregiver, teacher, or medical professional must notice the child is not meeting typical expectations for their age or peer group. Medical and psychological assessments usually determine what kind and how much support the child needs.

Professionals work with special developmental screening tools to make assessments. Although developmental delays do not always mean a lasting developmental disability, a correctly diagnosed developmental disability is lifelong. A child may be a slow bloomer and still catch up with peers, but a child who is diagnosed with a chronic disability will not “outgrow” the disorder.

What are Intellectual Disabilities?

Intellectual disabilities are defined as limiting mental capacity and adaptive behavior. Signs begin to show before 18 years of age. These disorders may originate from physical and non-physical causes. For example, autism spectrum disorder arises from multiple factors, including disruption of normal brain growth (a physical cause). A non-physical cause of an intellectual disability might be insufficient infant stimulation.

Intellectual disorders are characterized by two key traits. These individuals display a below-average IQ or cognitive abilities. Additionally, they have difficulty with adaptive behavior, such as routines or socialization.

Essential Qualities to Have When Working With Developmentally Disabled People

There are many important qualities to have when working with developmentally disabled people. Exactly what capacity you intend to work in changes the specific skills and abilities you need, but ultimately certain qualities are vital. You can learn skills and abilities, like how to provide speech therapy or communication skills. Qualities are generally something someone possesses naturally. However, if you know you lack certain qualities, you can work to develop those to an extent as well.

When working with developmentally disabled populations, the following qualities are absolutely essential. When you work with children with special needs, however, these qualities become even more critical. Not only do children respond more positively to such behavior, but their parents or guardians will also respond well to you.

Depending on the role you play, you might provide support for parents or help parents figure out how to work more effectively with their child at home. They might also be concerned about specific behaviors their child exhibits which are difficult to control. The kind and caring qualities necessary for working with people with disabilities also goes a long way with their caregivers.


Empathy is the ability to understand how the other person feels in a given situation. You’ll need to be able to imagine how the people you work with feel, no matter their age or ability level. They might feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, or incompetent, and they may have difficulty expressing emotions, to begin with, never mind those emotions anyone has trouble describing. Being able to connect empathically on an emotional level makes that connection easier to form.

Empathy also allows professional caregivers, special education teachers, and medical professionals to separate their own feelings from those of the person with a disability. In some cases, a person with developmental disabilities might direct their frustration at the person helping them. By remaining calm and using empathy, you can understand and respond to your client, student, or patient in a better, more supportive way.


Being patient helps encourage people with disabilities. Because some developmental disabilities are characterized by below-average IQs, certain skills can be difficult to grasp. For example, socialization or communication skills might take extra patience to find successful ways to improve those abilities. When a disability is characterized by a difficulty with a particular aspect of life, learning to do so can be frustrating. It’s easy for anyone to get upset in such a situation, especially for someone who feels they lack control or autonomy or just do not feel understood in their experience (this also goes back to empathy).

Patience is so important in helping anyone learn. When you remember to stay calm and let the person you are assisting take their time to learn this new skill or work through that problem, the long term results are going to be a big improvement.

Successful Communication Skills

In both social and work situations, Successful communication skills are important in almost every part of anyone’s life — particularly in social and work settings. Some people seem to have a special gift for communicating with others, but communication skills are definitely important qualities to have when working with developmentally disabled people.

Alternate Modes of Communication

Some children, especially those with communication difficulties, need specific strategies in education programs to help them to develop alternative communication models. These might include sign language, writing or drawing, special tools, or a combination of strategies. Being able to adapt the way you communicate is essential to working with people with developmental disabilities.

Understanding— Not Just Hearing

Being able to understand what is being communicated to you is just as vital. You must be able to read behavioral cues, hear what might not actually be said (verbally or nonverbally), and inspire trust through listening and understanding alternate modes of communication.

Someone with developmental disabilities can have difficulty expressing themselves. Not being understood is frustrating for anyone. For someone with difficulty expressing emotions and ideas to begin with, it can be particularly upsetting. Using patience and empathy with a combination of communication styles makes for a very effective special education teacher, medical professional specializing in working with special needs, caregiver, or other professional in the field.

Practical, Tactful, and Responsive

Being practical and responding quickly and calmly to the array of surprising situations that can arise is also an important quality to have when you work with special populations. While this is certainly important when working with children, you may find these skills to be even more essential when working with adults.

Some clients or patients will need help with toilet trips, bathing, or otherwise maintaining personal hygiene. The everyday tasks of personal care aside, accidents and emergencies happen all the time. You have to be prepared to take care of them without panicking, embarrassing the source of the accident, or acting in such a way as to demean your clients.

Handling potentially embarrassing accidents and emergencies practically and quickly with a level head are and without bringing undo attention to the situation is the only way to ensure your clients maintain their dignity and the respect all human beings deserve. All human beings also deserve dignity, privacy, and respect. Tactfully, calmly handling embarrassing situations while respecting personal boundaries and requirements is extremely important to doing your job well in any part of the field, from special education teacher to case worker.


Being organized is an absolute must for every professional working with adults and children with disabilities. Almost every position in the field is going to entail working with multiple clients, students, or patients, and you have to be able to keep the variety of different needs straight and be prepared for each new session and person.

Organization is also important because many children with special needs and adults with disabilities respond more successfully to regular routines with designated tasks and specific expectations as they move through the day.

Additionally, many of these positions require a lot of paperwork, and you have to be able to keep that straight. For example, failing to bill a client’s insurance could cost them a lot of money they don’t have. Appropriate schedules as a carer, lesson plans as a special education teacher, and other important elements of the job need an ability to organize yourself, your work, and your client’s life.


Adaptability in the face of the unexpected is also essential to being successful when you work with people with developmental disabilities, learning disorders, and other special needs. Surprising situations may arise or plans change for a number of reasons. Those reasons may be related or totally unrelated to developmental disabilities. Being versatile and able to adapt quickly to the unexpected is a must.

In short, you have to be prepared to make appropriate changes when something unexpected occurs without complaining, making the people involved more stressed out, or causing further complications. Working with children of any ability can be unpredictable, introducing surprises into regular play. When you work with children with special needs or adults with developmental disabilities, you can expect to find your time to be just as dynamic, requiring the reorganization of existing plans or creating contingency plans quickly and effectively.

Calm and Serene

Do people often tell you that you have a calming influence? You might have the sort of personality that lends itself to working with people with disabilities. Emotional or easily frustrated people, unfortunately, might have a difficult time with a career in this field. However, training yourself to exude calm is possible — it just tends to be a different type of calmness. Developing such a quality also takes a lot of work.

Maintaining an air of serenity can be useful in many career choices. It is a much more important quality to have when working with developmentally disabled populations. Being able to stay calm in stressful situations or when you are being bombarded with the rampant emotions of others who might have less control over how they express themselves is an enviable trait sure to inspire confidence in you as a teacher or caregiver.

Understanding, Respectful, and Kind

People with special needs or developmental disabilities often want to overcome problems. They may be problems people who are neurotypical have trouble understanding or have no experience with. Being able to understand (or empathize!) with someone trying to overcome an unusual problem will be a lot easier if you treat the other person with kindness and respect.

Throughout your career, you may discover a student, patient, or client is going through something you do not have first-hand experience with. You have to be able to at least attempt to understand. If you cannot, you still have to respect their attempts and encourage them in it. Even if you are unable to imagine their fears, frustrations, or physical challenges, you can certainly express kindness and provide support. Hopefully, however, your incredible ability to empathize will help you gain some insight.

Committed Optimism

Optimism is a character trait that relates to imagining the future — the distant future or the next five minutes. By focusing on the upside of difficult situations (or any situation, for that matter) and expecting positive outcomes, you can create an optimistic environment for others.

Studies have shown that people respond to others’ expectations of them. For example, if you behave in such a way that you make it obvious to a child that you expect him to be a troublemaker, he is considerably more likely to be one — regardless of whether or not he actually was when the pair of you came into contact. Conversely, if you treat the same child with the expectation that he will do great in the education programs in which he is involved and behave kindly, he is more likely to do great and be kind.

Extending a general sense of optimism to include expecting the best of people is more likely to help them actually develop the best parts of themselves. If you go into a classroom of children with special needs and expect them to do poorly, they will. If you walk in and treat them all like you know they can overcome whatever areas of their life are difficult at the moment, they will respond to that optimism and try to prove you right.


Passion is an important aspect of entering a field like this one. It can be a tremendous resource that gets you through difficult parts of your job. If you are truly there because you believe in what you are doing, you are going to be so much more successful than choosing the job at random because it seems like something you could do without too much work (and it does take work, no matter which part of the field you enter).

Caregivers in particular need to have some sort of fire fueling them. Caregiver burnout is a serious problem that can nip that fire of passion in the bud. Taking care of yourself and maintaining a professional distance from clients and students is extremely important. You cannot do anything all of the time.


Speaking of professional, this is another important quality to have when working with developmentally disabled populations — or in almost any other job you will ever have. However, in positions like a special education teacher or a caregiver for an adult with a disability, you are spending a lot of time, often one on one, with a few specific people.

When your job is to help someone learn important life skills or develop better ways to communicate; when you are potentially one of the few people who understands them well (or at all); when you are friend, cheerleader, and the person who sees them at some of the most intimate and important moments in their everyday life: This forges a strong personal bond. That’s great! Having a strong bond encourages trust, communication, and all the other things you need for a successful working relationship. “Working,” however, is the key word.

Behaving less professionally can be tempting when the relationship feels more like a friendship. Make sure you understand which behavior is professional and when you are starting to behave unprofessionally.

Advanced Skills and Abilities To Have When Working With Developmentally Disabled Populations

Suppose you think you are the kind of person who would do well working with children with special needs or adults with developmental disabilities and you know you have the qualities to be successful. In that case, the logical next step is figuring out if you have the skills to do so.

More advanced skills can be learned through a range of specialized courses. For a special education teacher’s position, nursing career, or other specialized jobs, you will need a college degree.

However, there are other positions in which you can work with special populations with less school-based requirements. Taking one-day courses or a class here and there can provide some skills that make you better at your job. For example, first aid, case management, applied psychology, and better record-keeping can all be taken over time in short courses — but they will also make you more desirable to hire.

You should also remember that learning is a lifelong process. Even after you have the job you want, continue to look into seminars and other courses that will continue to make you better at what you do.

The specific position you want to have in this field will change exactly what qualifications, degrees, or certifications you need. Regardless of whether you choose to work in early education, schools, in the home as a caregiver, or with adults to improve independence, those advanced skills and abilities are essential to prepare for these careers.

First Aid

Professionals who want to work with children or adults with disabilities typically learn basic first aid from their employers. Taking a first aid and/or CPR course immediately makes you more desirable.

First aid training is very important when working with people with developmental disabilities. They may be at greater risk of accident or injury, and some developmental disabilities also have congenital problems that make certain kinds of illness more likely.

The American Heart Association provides free CPR training. Check out local organizations for more specific or more comprehensive training with certification. A variety of first aid courses are often affordable and professionally recognized, so you have a certification to show for your efforts.

Case Management

Case management is the process of taking care of a client’s health and human needs. It is used in a few different but interconnected industries where a vulnerable adult or child might be involved. By identifying the potential issues a child or adult might experience, a team of professionals provide a supportive plan for the individual’s optimum outcome and act as a resource for everyday carers.

Sometimes case managers specifically undertake duties such as helping with transportation, school requirements, special therapies (such as speech or occupational), and creating strategies to meet a client’s unique needs. Understanding how the different aspects of case management work together and what each client needs for their most independent, best life will make you a stronger asset in any part of the field.

Psychology Courses

Understanding psychology can help professionals who work with individuals who are developmentally disabled perform their jobs more effectively.

You can apply your knowledge of psychology to help you understand and empathise with another person’s feelings and behavior. Understanding psychological development can help you determine when a child is not meeting important milestones and find more effective ways to work on the areas in which different children and adults with developmental disabilities need improvement.

Therapeutic Applications

You don’t need to be a licensed therapist to work with developmentally disabled people. Counseling skills, however, can help you communicate with and create solutions for problematic areas in life.

Therapeutic knowledge can also help you find ways to avoid burnout and be mentally healthy in your own life. Understanding some therapy techniques can be very helpful, particularly if you provide support for individuals and their families.

Clinical Psychology

When you have a basic understanding of the great variety of psychological disorders, learning disorders, and long-term mental disabilities that can be present, you can also more easily recognize disorders that appear comorbidly. Knowing a little bit about the most common disorders can also improve your ability as a caregiver, special education teacher, or other medical professional unrelated to psychology. Autism, for example, affects one in 68 kids in America across all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. That means no matter where you choose to work you are likely to encounter a child or adult on the autism spectrum.

Furthermore, a child with autism spectrum disorder can also have a diagnosis of ADHD. Unfortunately, psychological diagnoses can be incorrect — or a second diagnosis can be missed. If you are one of the few people who work constantly and closely with an individual, the ways different psychological disorders present is valuable knowledge.

Record Keeping

Record keeping is not just sitting in an office submitting paperwork. If you work with children or adults with disabilities, you may have a lot of different things you need to keep track of. This might range from detailed schedules for each student to keeping track of a client’s progress, goals, and successes.

Tracking progress and setbacks through detailed and useful records is not only helpful for you but for other professionals essential to your clients’ or students’ welfare. Furthermore, depending on where you live, specific reports may be required.

Working With Adults Who Have Developmental Disabilities

Adults with developmental disabilities may know more about what they need than the person who cares for them. When you work with adults, focus on their abilities, skills, and experiences in ways that help them be more independent. Do not focus strictly on their disability and what they cannot do.

Adults with developmental disabilities may be more prone to problems like depression. Without quality assistance that provides them with what they need and treats them like adults who need assistance, the chances can get even higher. Working with adults with disabilities should focus more on finding ways to contribute to society and finding achievements to be proud of.

Be A Mirror

Adults with developmental disabilities may have experienced more discrimination than children have. Being seen by strangers can feel very different from how they see themselves.

Learn how to be a mirror for your adult clients or patients. When they know you share their own perspective of them, they may feel less alone or less different. Help your clients feel less isolated. You can also close the gap between how strangers respond to them and how they feel about themselves. Reassure them in uncomfortable situations that you see them as an adult with a great deal to offer the world.

Understand What Inclusion Really Means

Inclusion is a vital aspect of encouraging individuals with disabilities to be part of the neurotypical world. Being invited into a space that is designed for typically able people is not inclusion, especially when it is ill-equipped.

Real inclusion is making sure all spaces are safe and available to anyone, no matter what kind of special needs they might have. For example, having a policy at an organization that says you hire people with developmental disabilities is great. True inclusion, however, means ensuring employees with disabilities have access to everything they need to do their job without making them feel like a hindrance.

Consider what you understand inclusion to be. Then apply your knowledge of people with disabilities. If you had a disability, how would you want to be “included” in a world that is built largely for people who do not have disabilities?

Understand Why You Want To Work With People With Developmental Disabilities

Helping developmentally disabled people is not an easy job. Depending on what aspect of the field you want to enter, it might seem that way. Taking the time to examine your reasons for working with disabled populations can give you a great deal of insight. It may also help you understand if this is really a good place for you.

Working with adults or children with developmental disabilities can be an extremely rewarding career choice, but it can also be exhausting, frustrating, and even upsetting. Know what drives you. Do you want to make a difference in someone’s life? Maybe you have a friend or loved one with a developmental disability, and you know how hard it can be for them to find quality care. Regardless, being prepared for what you are actually going to do and developing important qualities to have when working with developmentally disabled populations can make you much more successful in your career.

For More Information

Understanding important qualities to have when working with developmentally disabled populations is a big start to feeling prepared to work in such a career. The positions essential to individuals with disabilities are many and varied, and each one will require different specific skills. Overall, however, many of these qualities and skills will be important no matter how you provide support for special populations. If you have questions about supporting people with disabilities, contact us online today!

Related posts