According to the CDC, approximately 17% of children ages 3 to 17 are children with special needs, meaning they have at least one developmental disability, ranging from a learning disability to disabilities that can impair language, physical, and behavior areas. Many last into adulthood and impact the individual’s day-to-day functioning.

Careers working with children with developmental disabilities are both meaningful and in high demand. In fact, jobs in special education preschools are predicted to grow by over 20% through 2022. If you’re interested in working with people with disabilities, many career paths are open to you.

From occupational therapy to home care to social work, there are many ways to make a difference. But no matter which career path you choose, there are certain traits and skills needed to work with developmentally disabled people.

Top Skills Needed to Work with Developmentally Disabled

Organization and Adaptability

These may seem like two separate—even opposite—personality traits. But they go together surprisingly often when you’re working with people with disabilities. Children with developmental disabilities like autism thrive in structured and stable environments. Establishing and maintaining routines for your clients or patients requires a lot of meticulous attention to detail and organization.

This is especially true for people who work with multiple children with developmental disabilities. Keeping detailed notes about their preferences, progress, and habits is essential for proper reporting and care.

That being said, you also have to remain flexible and be able to quickly adapt to shifts in mood and behavior. Working with children of any ability is changeable and unpredictable. Dealing with the special needs of children with developmental disabilities is just another layer on top of that.


Again, this is a skill that is needed for working with children of any ability. Because, just like any child, children with disabilities can be easily distracted, excitable, and curious. Their disabilities can add extra obstacles to communication and functioning that lead to frustration, confusion, or sensory overload. For children, this can translate to tantrums and outbursts while they are learning to regulate their emotions and behaviors.

The people who work with special needs children need to possess the patience to see past the outbursts and meltdowns to the core of the problem. Whether it’s wet socks, interacting with too many strangers, a sudden change in schedule, or exhaustion, there’s always something being communicated by difficult behavior.

Kindness and Empathy

People who work with people with special needs are working with some of the most vulnerable members of our community. They face challenges that most people never have to imagine in their day-to-day lives. But, just like anyone else, when people with disabilities are treated with kindness, empathy, and dignity, they are able to grow and thrive despite their challenges.

Empathy also helps with communication and care. If you’re able to put yourself in their shoes, you’ll find yourself much less frustrated by meltdowns and outbursts. Understanding that it’s not about you, but about their struggles and emotions, allows you to react with patience and kindness in the face of negative behavior.


There is a high level of burnout for those who work with people with special needs. Working with children with developmental disabilities can be emotionally and physically exhausting. You have to always be fully present emotionally and mentally to match their energy and meet their needs. There can be a lot of intense emotions from both the clients and their parents that need to be met with understanding and grace. A positive attitude is almost mandatory.

That being said, it’s deeply rewarding to help people who need it and even on the rough days, it’s not the people you’re serving who will challenge your optimism—it’s the system. You’ll be dealing with a lot of reporting and red tape as someone who works with children with developmental disabilities.

Insurance claims, medical diagnosis and referrals, government care facilities, and social programs… They all require paperwork, bureaucracy, and an understanding of the underlying system to navigate properly. Like most systems, they’re also incomplete and imperfect. You’ll meet people who need help and can’t access it on a technicality. Or your client will qualify, but the programs will be full.

Dealing with the care system from the inside can be incredibly frustrating and depressing and it leads to a lot of burnout. Feed your optimism by remembering why you do what you do and practicing self-care.

Communication Skills

Communication skills are more than just the ability to converse. They’re about making yourself understood and responding to unspoken social cues. Children with developmental disabilities often struggle with communicating properly.

Whether they have difficulty with the physical act of speaking or trouble processing language or facial expressions, they often need extra time and effort to convey what they are thinking and feeling. That’s why the people who work closely with them should possess excellent communication skills of their own—to help fill the gaps and make the connection. After all, it’s difficult to teach something that you’re not good at yourself.

Being able to explain answers to questions clearly and in multiple ways to facilitate understanding. Being able to understand what your clients are really asking or saying. Addressing the family’s worries, filling out reports and paperwork, writing grants, creating lesson plans—it all requires excellent communication skills.

Integrity, Inc.

For over 30 years, Integrity, Inc. has served the disabled members of our community by providing a variety of in-home care, habilitative therapy, and child care services in Central Arkansas.

If you want to learn more about the skills needed to work with the developmentally disabled, or if you’re interested in working with Integrity, Inc., fill out our online application or call (501) 406-0442.

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