Every parent loves capturing those quirky and sometimes hilarious Christmas photos with Santa, right? We spend eleven months of the year teaching our children “Stranger Danger,” and then practically throw them at Santa and then wonder why we don’t always get the results we expect. Expect the unexpected, right?
Things aren’t so clear cut for kids with special needs. You have to take a different, more sensitive approach. Don’t expect miracles and you might actually see some.
I sometimes run sensitive Christmas sessions with no Santa. It looks a little Christmassy, but not too much. The kids often seem to enjoy it, and I know the parents love the time and effort that’s gone into capturing something meaningful.
Consider their needs
Depending on the child, they each have different needs. Some don’t tolerate bright lights or loud noises. They need to feel safe with people they know and trust. Some have sensory issues or are frightened by strangers.
Take the time to try and connect with them, even just a little. Don’t just jump in and throw a camera in their face — chances are that won’t go well. Find out beforehand what interests the child and their communication abilities, as each child is different.
Keep things simple. Don’t set up your studio with something overwhelming — a chair and some simple decorations can be enough. Sometimes, you can even add the Christmas stuff in during the post-processing if you wish.
Put things in perspective
Talk to the kids at their level. Don’t be patronizing or condescending. Often, these kids cannot communicate that well but understand more than you think. They are often actually super smart. Tell them what is going on, explain what you’re doing. Offer a mini guided tour. Show them the camera and the lights, take a few photos of Mum or Dad (or both) and let the kids see the back of the camera.
If they are old enough, perhaps even let them take a photo or two, with your guidance. Maybe you have an old (or cheap) camera that they can use. A special Christmas photo of Mum and Dad taken by their child maybe be just as precious as one of the child, and of course, the child will probably love it too.
Some special kids love to know HOW things work. If this is the case let them be apart of the session in a way they can understand. Work on their level. If you have to get on the ground and snap them playing with LEGO, then so be it.
Go with the flow
Let the kids run the show (within reason) — they may not want to look directly at the camera. Watch them, observe them, have things that might grab and keep their attention. Sometimes, you may need to have Mum or Dad or a sibling in the shot with them. Don’t push, but make them feel like they have choices.
Give them props they can understand and interact with like a small present they can open and keep. Perhaps Mum or Dad can provide it for the shoot. Maybe they have a favorite toy or book. Ask them to show it to you, tell you about it. Capture their enthusiasm if they show it.
If they do happen to have a meltdown, be understanding and tolerant, and remember that the parents are probably having a hard time too. Give them a few minutes, but if it just isn’t going to happen, there is no point forcing everyone. Just let it go. Perhaps offer to try again another time.
Don’t expect miracles
Don’t force them to do things they don’t want. And don’t let the session go too long. Give the kids something to capture their interest, even if it’s a game on a mobile phone. Then capture those images. A miracle won’t always happen, but often a look or a smile might.
Be ready and don’t overact. If you think you’ve got a killer shot, maybe give Mum and Dad a quiet thumbs-up and then start to bring the session to an end. But never just stop. Sometimes kids with special needs completely forget you are there and share a moment that is worthy of a shot. Sometimes if they feel comfortable and trust you they might sit on their own for a great picture or two. Don’t get greedy — sometimes a few great Christmas photos are better than one perfect shot.
Don’t overthink it
Do your homework but don’t overthink it. This is supposed to be fun! Children pick up on things and are often quite empathetic.
If you are getting stressed out because things aren’t going the way you thought, they can sense that. So be light and bright and just go with the flow. If nothing else the parents will surely appreciate you trying to make things calm and peaceful in an otherwise hectic time.
Photos used with permission of the parent.