Flexibility & calmness lead way for working with children with intellectual disabilities

When you are working with a child victim with an intellectual disability (ID), first make sure that they are physically okay, and that they see you are calm.

If you are able, find out everything you can from key people in the child’s life. Ask what you can do to help the child feel more comfortable and safe.

Avoid assumptions. Children may or may not be able to follow directions or to understand what you are telling them. Every child will be different. Chaos and noise can particularly distress children with ID. Remove the disturbance or move the child.

If the abuse did not involve physical pain, the child may not understand what the problem is. You may have to explain what happened and why it’s a crime.

Be flexible

Children with IDD will have different capacities for sharing what happened. Allow for multiple modes of expression: drawing, open-ended questions, close-ended questions, yes-no questions, head nodding.

Engage and show interest in the child. Talk to the child, rather than about the child to other adults in the room.

Children with IDD need more time to process events. They also need fewer words and a consistent message that’s in plain language. Example: You are not in trouble. You are safe. I can help. Give simple steps of what to do.


Do not be alarmed by unusual behavior. It can be a sign of distress that they are not in control of.


Avoid power struggles by giving children as many choices and as much control as possible: Where to sit, if they want a break, if they would like a drink, etc.


Check for understanding. Ask the child to respond back about what they think is happening. Ask if they have any questions.

Acknowledge the child’s desire to please. Let them know it’s okay to say, I don’t know.

Children with ID are also very susceptible to being coached, so avoid leading questions.

Don’t complete their thoughts, don’t interrupt, and don’t assume anything.

Use fewer pronouns to avoid confusion. Instead of, Did she go with her? ask, Did James go with Jose?

Talk about the facts. You have bruises. How do you feel about that? What can you remember about how you got the bruises? Use short, to-the-point directives and questions.

Studies show that children with mild to moderate ID are better witnesses than is generally expected, except in remembering dates and times. Children tend to do better as witnesses when they are interviewed soon after the event.

Children may better remember when things happened in relationship to their favorite televisions shows, when they go to school and come home, when they have physical therapy, and other regularly scheduled events.

Avoid abstract concepts and give concrete points of reference when questioning. Instead of How tall was Dylan?, ask Is Dylan taller than you?  Instead of What time was it? try, Was it before or after dinner? Offer two choices that are both fine. Would you like to start talking now, or would you like to start talking in a few minutes?

During interviews, rather than asking, Where were you and who was with you?, break it down and give two choices. Were you at home or with Raquel? Were you at home alone or with another person?

Responding to distress

If a plan changes at the last minute or if they do not know what is coming next, children with IDD can get very distressed. Sit with them and tell them very concretely about what happened, why it happened, what’s happening next, and that they’re safe right now.


If the child is distressed, avoid confrontation. Instead of trying to stop the negative behavior, let it ride out. Avoid sounding scolding or angry. Rather than pushing, model calmness. Try: I’m right here and will wait until you are ready.


The Arc. (2018). Intellectual disability. Retrieved November 19, 2018, from www.thearc.org/learn-about/intellectual-disability

This project is funded by the Texas Center for the Judiciary through a Children’s Justice Act Grant.

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