I’m new to working with children with disabilities – what do I need to do?
- Start with the realization that children with disabilities are children first. All children respond in different ways, and need to be approached individually.
- Plan to spend additional time preparing for and investigating cases. Gather as much information about the child as you can from key people in their life.
- Talk to the right people. If the child is old enough and able to respond, ask them if there is anyone in particular they want to be involved. If not, the best resources will be the child, the non-abusive family members or care providers, the child’s teacher, and others who know the child well.
- Do your research. Get to know basic information about the child's disability, and how it may impact the process of investigation. Also consider what they experienced, how they processed what they experienced, and how they might communicate.
- Know when to get help. If you feel you cannot provide adequate services for this child, explore whether or not another staff member can assist or conduct the interview (Office for Victims of Crime).
- Give the child time and space to get to know you.
I’m working with a child who is becoming withdrawn and doesn't seem to want to communicate. What can I do?
- All behavior is an attempt to communicate. Ask parents, caregivers, family members, or teachers to interpret the child’s behaviors.
- Refuse to give up easily. That may mean coming back to visit a particular child. The more silent or withdrawn a child is, the more likely it is that something happened to them, or that their trust in adults has eroded over a period of time. Keep showing up with a positive attitude and seeking some kind of common ground.
- Be patient. It may not be easy to see that you are making progress. However, through your calm and consistent interactions you are showing the child that they can trust you, that you are open and willing to help, and that you are there to listen to them.
One father of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder knows that when his son flaps his hands and spins, he’s happy. When he bites his hand, he’s bored. He knows that when his son repeats things, he’s not being sarcastic – he just doesn’t know what to say. Knowing what these behaviors mean can help with the investigation and the interview (J. Roppolo, personal communication, May 24, 2014).
How do I work with children who do not communicate with words?
Presume competence. Believe that the child can understand you unless you learn otherwise.
Every child and youth has some way to communicate, even if they do not use words. Families may be able to read their responses through their body language, blinks, and grunts to indicate yes, no, maybe. Others may use “yes/no” cards, computers, or communication books or boards.
Every child with a disability is different, so approach each child with curiosity and an open mind.
Do your homework. Find out as much as you can about the child before you meet. Talk to a teacher, the non-offending parent, or others who know the child well. Ask how best to communicate.
Start slow. Communicate at a level that the child understands, based on what others have told you. Explain what is happening in plain, easy to understand language; but do provide the same information you would give to any other child.
Start with questions you know the answer to, such as their name or where they live, so that you can determine how the child communicates. Give the child extra time to process what you have said and make decisions.
Clue into body language – yours and the child’s. Keep your body language open and comfortable, and make eye contact as you would with any other child.
Watch for non-verbal communication that indicate understanding; eye contact, gestures, posture, body movements, and tone of voice. Keep in mind that a child may be uncomfortable with sustained eye contact. Also watch carefully for body language that indicates whether the child wants to talk about what happened. For example, turning away when you talk or pushing your hands away may indicate that the child does not want to continue. Making eye contact, turning their body toward you and following your verbal directions may indicate that the child would like the interview to continue.
Try another method. If a child’s response to your questions isn’t clear or they don’t seem to understand, restate the question/statement in a different way. Use pictures or drawings. If the child has their own communication device, use that as well.