How To Give Counseling To Someone With Developmental Disability


Counseling individuals with a developmental disability – e.g., autism, cerebral palsy, brain injury, and Down syndrome – is honestly tough. Your clients are mostly kids who acquired the neurological disorder from birth or several years after that. They have not lived long enough to identify how to think and behave like regular people. Developmental disabilities are attributable to a cognitive impairment, physical impairment, or both. They manifest during the developmental period from birth to early adulthood, and are likely to continue indefinitely,” explains Clarissa Kripke, M.D. of the University of California. It may even be easier to get through to depressed or addicted folks as they at least lived a life without such a condition in the past.

It does not help either that most – if not all – developmental disabilities are incurable. It’s hard to decide if that is because the problem is too complex to resolve or there’s only a little research being done on the subject matter. The outcome is that the children who have the disorders mentioned above usually need to stay on therapy for years. “If you are looking for a way to make an important contribution to the services available in your town or city or you have been searching for a niche to help you stand out from the professional crowd, consider learning how to tailor therapy to this unique and rewarding population,” notes licensed psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Nonetheless, in case you are new at giving counseling to someone with a developmental disability, check out the following tips.

  1. Earn Their Trust

The unfortunate truth about disabled individuals who are older than five years old is that they may have been exposed to the world. That cannot produce a positive impact on the person all the time because they get to deal with the harsh comments from other people, no matter how much their family tries to protect them. Some gaze at them pitifully; others are inconsiderate enough to talk about their flaws openly.

The thing is, whether the disability altered someone’s brain function or not, he or she can still realize at one point that strangers see them differently. It may enable them to retreat under their shell and not want to even be around mental health professionals like you. Because of that, you ought to earn their trust first.

The easiest way to do that is by not pushing the client to do the activities you laid out. It will not be the only meeting you’ll have, and perhaps he or she can become comfortable around you the more you stay in their life. You may also learn about their favorites so that it can be like a conversation starter between the two of you.

  1. Assess Non-Verbal Cues

When someone has a developmental disability, it entails that he or she has problems using his or her senses or body parts regularly. For instance, the twinkling lights that look fun for non-disabled people are triggering for folks with autism. Walking is practically impossible for cerebral palsy patients. Others have issues with their speech, behavior, and deduction process.

Even if the individual refuses or cannot speak, an excellent counselor should be able to understand the client by assessing their body language. Say, in case a patient who has never looked up when you tell a story suddenly meets your eyes, that is a sign that you got their attention. Once a child with special needs tries the activities you suggest to them, it means that the treatment is slowly but surely working.

  1. Tailor The Treatment For Each Client

You can obtain better results as well if you make every activity or discussion relatable for your clients. However, you need to ensure that the technique you will employ is custom-fit to each person’s needs. “That may mean revising a worksheet to meet their unique needs or explaining the same concept 10 different ways until it’s clear,” says Rose Reif, LPC, CRC, QDDP. “Whether it’s challenging their client on a cognitive distortion, or assigning homework, or engaging in a role-playing session, I think many counselors are afraid that they will somehow hurt or confuse their client if they try to introduce new skills or ideas.”

Remember that you will never get two people who have the same case, despite their condition being under one category. They are different when it comes to the severity of the disability, their age, the trigger factors, and many more. So it is only proper to plan how the treatment should go for a specific client after a couple of sessions, not right after the first consultation.


When you give counseling to someone with a developmental disability, give it with confidence. The guidance you can offer to clients is essential for improving their lives and their future. It is impossible not to know how to do that, primarily now that you have these basic tips.

Good luck!