Finding an Au Pair for a child with Special Needs: Willingness is not enough

by cv harquail on October 15, 2010

When I first noticed that au pairs could indicate with a simple check mark whether they were “willing” to match with a family with host kids with special needs, I was surprised.

I was pleased that there was an easy way for au pair candidates to indicate, without embarrassment, whether or not they felt they were up to whatever additional or different challenges might come up when caring for a child with special needs. And certainly, that simple check mark (or not) made it easier for potential host parents to skip right over candidates who were not “willing”.

But I have often wondered how well au pair candidates understood what “special needs” could and couldn’t mean, how many of them chose not to be willing and missed a great experience, and how many more chose “willing” only to be surprised, and maybe even over-challenged.

3215391171_1f0713f8fa_b.jpgWe want to believe that family life with a special needs child brings its own unique joy. Certainly, my family has chosen to see our members with special needs as bringing us something valuable– but of course, these are our children, our sisters, our brothers, our cousins. They are ours, we are theirs, and that’s it.

I don’t think it’s quite the same when the relationship is between a non-family member caregiver and a child with special needs.

In good situations, caregiver and child build a strong and positive relationship, and in some situations no amount of willingness or support can bridge a gap between what someone expects childcare to be, and what childcare turns out to be.

My sister had several au pairs for her family, and most of these au pairs — who were all special needs willing — developed strong, loving, protecting and helpful relationships with all the children despite their differing needs. One developed such an appreciation for my niece that she investigated becoming a special ed teacher.

Parents need to be especially forthcoming with specific details about their children and what they need.

Even when an au pair says s/he was willing, s/he might be more willing and comfortable with some kinds of needs over others. A child with physical challenges might be more difficult or more comfortable for the particular au pair than a child with cognitive challenges, or vice versa. Not only the type of challenges, but also the amount of challenges, should be made clear to candidates.

I think my sister and brother-in-law got particularly good at describing to potential au pairs exactly what their daughter with special needs is like, what kind of attention she needs, what kind of extra help she needs, what energy level is required, and what kind of attitudes work best. They have sent many photographs, short videos, and even brief pamphlets about Down Syndrome challenges to educate their potential au pairs before they match. And, they talk candidly about their own expectations, what they find challenging, and what they find joyful about having two “typical” kids and one “special needs” kid.

By being forthcoming and candid up front, I think they’ve been able to set realistic expectations for their incoming au pairs, and this has been very helpful in getting matches that work. They haven’t assumed that candidates know what their child ‘might’ be like, or assumed that the candidate’s understanding of what it means to have Down Syndrome matches what’s unique to their own child.

(Not all kids with a particular “special need” are alike– if you’ve known one child on the autistic spectrum, you sure as heck don’t know what to expect about anyone else with autism, or ADHD, or MD, or limited hearing. )

Parents need to be realistic about what their children need that is ‘special’.

In addition to being forthcoming about what a child with special needs actually needs — whether that’s practice with physical therapy, more than average laundry, or the patience to repeat a game over and over — parents looking to find an au pair who is capable as well as willing also need to be especially reflective and conscious of their own expectations.

Some parents (of typical and special needs kids) lack a realistic sense of what their child needs. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying this, but I’ve seen parents who think their children are delightful and easy to be with, when in truth the kids are rude hellions. Or, their children obey them, and ignore any other adult. Or, the parents firmly believe the child will outgrow the willfulness or shyness or whatever, and so they underplay it.

To find an au pair that can fit with your children, you have to be honest with yourself about where your children are. This is true for host children who are developing along typical trajectories, as well as those children who are developing on less typical trajectories.

Parents need to have a firm grip on their own attitudes, beliefs, and values when it comes to the way they want their children to be part of the world.

Little Missy and Princess PSome parents prefer to integrate their children into as many typical social situations as possible, while some prefer to have their children in situations with other kids with different abilities. Obviously, choices like these depend on the specific challenges a child faces, but also they depend on a family’s philosophy about how their children (typical or with special needs) will find his or her place in the world.

There are also cultural differences as well as personal differences in attitudes towards and expectations of people with special needs that come into play. For example, in some cultures families are still somewhat ashamed of children with special needs, whereas others are more inclusive, and still others set them in a special and positive place.

Parents have to be ready to take on a whole additional level of training, teaching and role modeling.

Parents have to recognize that caring for child with special needs will have all sorts of unanticipated challenges for an au pair and will require her to be vigilant in different ways.

Here’s one quick example– I was at a party last weekend, where one of the guests was using a wheelchair and needed someone to help her move with it. At one point, the person using a wheelchair was in the path of the guy carrying the cake. So someone rolled the guest — and her wheelchair– out of the way (1) without asking her, and (2) leaving her facing a wall with her back to the rest of the guests.

Yes, that person meant to help, and yes, after a quick word from nosy me that person will approach a person using a wheelchair differently from now on.

An au pair will have to learn little stuff like that, over and over, and sometimes he or she will hurt people’s feelings as the au pair learns.

Also, if your child is not home-bound, your au pair will find him or herself out with your child in situations where s/he will need to manage how other people interact with your child. S/he will need to be the one to say “Yes, it’s okay to ask why he wears a helmet.”  S/he will need you to teach her or him what to do when someone in public stares, or laughs, or talks much to loudly at your child to compensate for their own discomfort.


I realize that any parent of a child who has special needs will have already thought of all of this, and that I may be missing some critical points, so let’s continue the conversation, below.

What can parents do to find an Au Pair willing, able, and ready to care for a child with special needs?

See also:

Regulations & Additional Training for Au Pairs of Children with Special Needs

[Note: ProAuPair is one agency that offers au pairs with additional certifications, such as certification in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, etc. that can be especially beneficial for children with special needs. This comment is not meant as an advertisement or endorsement, only to let you know that ProAuPair does have au pairs specially qualified to work with some children’s speciall needs. cvh 11.2010]

AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Andreas-photography
Little Missy & Princess P
AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Andreas-photography
Tilly (being silly)
AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Andreas-photography
(A beautiful child, not my niece)


maleaupairmommy October 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Dear Au pair mom,
Thanks for writing so much about this. I face this challenge with fear every year. When we first started the program my son was not diagnosised he was only 3 years old. Everyone around me kept telling me boys are hyper, etc. boys talks slower etc. It wasn’t until we tried to get him into a special preschool the teacher who was not very educated come to find out told me he was severely austistic. Come to find out after the shock wore off he has ADHD with PDD- NOS (another crap diagnosis IMHO). Needless to say my first au pair was great with him and very patient and kind and helped us find the resources we needed. I think of poor Jozsef who had no idea and never got overwhelmed even though he had a 6 months old, 18 months, and a 3 year old with emerging special needs. Our second au pair was diaster couldn’t understand why he wasn’t completely potty trained, wouldn’t listen, etc. Even though I told her and my current au pair in her own language what the deal was. Needless to say 10 weeks we transition and come to find out she put him in a high chair in the middle of winter in the garage with the lights off for peeing his pants. She thought she was great and told my husband who never told me tell she left. UGH!!! Our third(stayed two years) and fourth au pair Carlos and Emilio took the challenge head on and in numerous and small ways helped him be a better person. They never got embarrassed if he did some wild thing or inappropriate thing with other kids just taught him no we don’t do this and practice with him. They got sad with us when he didn’t do what he was suppose to do go happy with us when he made gains and improvement. Helped us determine if the medication was working or when we needed to change it. Helped us and stood up for him with his teachers and grandparents and for this he has done so well and I’m grateful for them all even the bad one who taught us how to make his life better and celebrate who he is. Helped us ignore the people who just don’t understand him. I’m always up front and make sure all my au pairs come knowing exactly what they are in for. My second child is hyper but to a less extent we shall see if he eventually gets diagnosis with ADD. My girl well she has two brothers to keep up with so for a girl she is hyper. We are a loving host family who apperciates are au pairs and try to give them small and big things when we can and they know this and apperciate it too. It’s a give-give situation and a flexiable one. I did find an au pair agency that was a little more expensive but for more moderate to severe special needs I would use it is called they didn’t have many male au pairs and well I’m prejudice now as much as I would like a female au pair I just can’t for me male au pairs take the challenge head on and with so much grace and hard work that I can’t take the chance. My fifth au pair arrives in Jan and I’m super nervous but he was orginally going to a family of five so I figured if he was willing to do this he could maybe LOL handle my three. He has talked a lot with both my current and last au pair in his own language so I think he is well prepared for the challenges and joy of helping me raise my family. Again au pair mom thanks for writing about this sometimes I feel so alone at this and I find comfort in knowing that I am not.

Host Mom in VA October 16, 2010 at 8:33 pm

This is such a wonderful post! Many thanks to the author for writing. I’m sure that it will help many families with the AP selection and on boarding processes.

Taking a Computer Lunch October 16, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Many of you have come to know of The Camel, who is a severely retarded (a function of her IQ). She has a teenaged body but functions approximately between 10 months and 13 months developmentally, but also has 2 potentially life-threatening medical conditions. She needs toileting, dressing, complete hygiene care and feeding. I don’t anticipate that she will ever hold a job – she will require total care for the rest of her life.

In the old days, we had to cold-call APs – almost none had emails. Now, we use email (and include a YouTube video of The Camel to provide a real visual) to weed out those unwilling to care for her. We usually do telephone interviews with 5-6 women before selecting the candidate that we think will work best with us.

We were fortunate that our first AP was an intensive care nurse in her country. She was exactly what we needed when The Camel was 2 and her brother was 5 months (he had bacterial meningitis as an infant) and both were in a state-sponsored early intervention program for children with special needs. What made her great with infants, made her less great with preschoolers. She stayed with us for 3 1/2 years.

TOur second AP had done a high school program that included direct work with special needs children, including a couple of summers in a camp for children with emotional issues. She was exactly what we needed at that time – and pushed both kids to meet their potential (my son accepted the fact that he had to feed and dress himself immediately, for example). She stayed with us for 18 months.

Our third AP had completed over half of her program as a psychologist, and had worked with children who had been abused as well as those whose parents had been imprisoned. When she matched with us, she volunteered in a program for children with mental retardation to gain further experience. She stayed with us for 15 months.

Then we spent a year with LPNs (licensed practical nurses) who did what was required of them to keep my daughter alive, but, with one exception, provided no loving contact (hugs, cuddles, singing). It was not a model of care that pleased us, but was absolutely necessary the year we ripped our home apart to put a special handicapped accessible wing on our house. (The Camel at 16 months weighed a mere 12 pounds, and at 3 years, a mere 19 pounds – we could not imagine a day when we would not want to carry her up and down the stairs, but it happened.) We had 25 nurses in 9 months – a couple didn’t make it through their first shift, and 5 failed to show up for work altogether (once, my 72 year-old neighbor met The Camel’s schoolbus).

AP 4 came when the construction was completed enough – and she had also done a special high school degree on children and recreation. She had lived in a group home for mentally retarded children and adults, and had been involved in recreation programs for them. She was dynamic with both of our children. She stayed for only a year (despite our asking her to extend).

AP 5 came from a country that did not encourage the well-being or education of special needs children, and she found the wealth of services offered to the Camel fascinating and compelling. She really put her all into it – volunteering in The Camel’s school and cooking special meals for her. The downside, her lack of English skills meant that she and my son barely bonded, and he began to think of APs as “for The Camel” — at the age of 9. We did not invite her to extend with us, due to issues unrelated to caring for The Camel.

AP 6 just arrived a few weeks ago, and is starting to bond with the Camel. As we have done with each AP, we model behavior and attention that we would like to see in her (picking up The Camel and playing with her, cuddling, talking to her, taking her for walks, swimming, self-feeding).

People assume that The Camel is my difficult child. There have been times that she has broken my heart (like the night she nearly died three days after brain surgery, or when she stopped breathing minutes after her tonsillectomy), but her joys are simple. It is her brother who fights me tooth and nail, and asks difficult questions (like the time he was four and asked, “Why do people commit suicide.” – Uhm – Why do you want to know?”). My life is very different than I anticipated when I became pregnant with her, but it’s not a bad life – and I would miss her terribly if she were no longer part of it.

I have written about the benefits of working for us – we understand all too well that our APs work hard (but we also don’t ask them to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves). Our APs work 22-30 hours a week in most weeks, and in addition to the required two weeks off, get 8-10 federal holidays off each year. When friends & family visit we often give them an extra day off. We provide a car that is nearly exclusive and a cell phone. Neither the car nor the AP have a curfew. Nevertheless, our AP knows that she is the first responder when something goes wrong with The Camel while DH and I are at work. Every AP has experienced The Camel go into a life-threatening crisis that all but once resulted in hospitalization. We are generous, but we are not financially well-off, so there are no theatre tickets, no cruises, no hotel rooms. We encourage our APs to be part of the family, but also expect that they will be independent adults in our community.

amber smith October 17, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Hi there!
I am working on becomming an Au Pair in Europe this coming spring. I have extensive experience with special needs children in various settings. I am having trouble finding a way to get paired with a family who would benefit from my skills. It is important to me to become an Au Pair for a family that would benefit from my background in physical therapy and motor skill development delays. Can any one on this site give me a point in the right direction for finding a site or an agency that pairs Au Pairs with families who have special needs children? It would be greatly appreciated!


MommyMia October 17, 2010 at 7:21 pm

You might try Although they are a US company who brings (mainly) German au pairs to the US, they might know of some affiliates in Europe or have some suggestions for you. Good luck!

My 2 cents October 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

Didn’t read all the posts above, so I’m probably rehashing, but IMHO as the parent of a special needs child the most important thing a HP can do to get the right AP for a SN child is to be no holds-barred, brutally honest with candidates as to what their day to day experience with the SN child (and other children) will be like. Be graphic. Ask if they would have a problem doing (insert unpleasurable tasks here). Ask whether they are ready to spend (insert calculation of minutes or hours) a day conducting therapy and not going to say, a park, or on a play date, or something that may happen more frequently with a non-SN child. Ask what they would do if your SN child acts out (describe in detail how they act out) in a non-age appropriate way

Melissa October 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm

This is a topic that is close to my heart, since I have an amazing, sweet and smart 4 y.o. daughter with Down syndrome. Special needs can mean so many different things and what each family needs in an AP and the type of work that the AP will have to do related to the special needs child can vary so, so much, and we’re a good example of that. For us, interestingly, special needs experience is not at all important. If I see an AP has SN experience on her application, it’s a plus, but other attributes carry far more weight for us. Likewise, if she checks “SN Willing”, that’s also nice, but I don’t remove candidates from my search because they checked the No box. In fact, our best APs were all ‘not special needs willing’ on their apps. And so far for us, the ‘differences’ in caring for my child with Down syndrome vs. my older typically developing child, are very few. I think some of my APs would say she’s actually easier and sweeter than my ‘typical’ child. lol. And thankfully, we have not had any significant medical issues to contend with (aside from visits to specialists).

So, when searching for an AP, I devote a paragraph in my intro email explaining that my DD has Down syndrome and what that means (this is not the first thing I share about her in my letter, I always talk about who she is, her likes/dislikes, etc, since Down syndrome is nowhere near the most important attribute about her). I let applicants know that she is essentially like caring for any other child, except that it often takes her longer to do/learn things. I also let them know we are not looking for any special needs experience, but we definitely need someone who is caring, has a very positive and respectful view of people with different abilities, and most of all, is willing to learn and adapt (along with us) regarding how to best meet her needs. I give specific examples of where she is at developmentally (e.g., ‘she is walking well, but is just learning to run’, or ‘she is talking, but her verbal level is probably what you’d think of for an average 2 y.o. child’) — this is a bit simplified, but it gets the idea across clearly to potential APs.

I do think we will need to place more emphasis discussing my daughter’s special needs during our future AP searches, because my her needs are increasing as she gets older. For example, a lot more time will need to be spent on adapting and assisting with schoolwork (has not been an issue so far, since she’s only 4) and as she gets older and starts developing peer groups and friendships. However, up until now, being a ‘special needs’ family has not had much impact for us.

We did have some struggles with the agencies, though (we’ve worked with 4 different ones). At first, some only sent us applicants with SN experience, which limits the pool significantly. While I understand the point of this, in many cases, an applicant’s SN experience is completely irrelevant to our situation (and again, SN experience that is helpful to one family may be not at all applicable for another family). For example, we received an application for a girl who volunteered at a domestic abuse shelter and worked with the emotionally fragile children there. Great experience, but for us, that does not make her any more qualified that someone without that experience. So, to get around this, we generally have to write a letter or email saying that we do not require a Special Needs AP.

Thanks CV for posting on this topic!

Taking a Computer Lunch October 18, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Actually, I think The Camel is excellent at weeding out some “problem” APs (no princesses want to wipe the dirty tush of a adolescent) – not to say that we haven’t had problems with our APs, but the issue hasn’t been the quality of their childcare. We’ve been using APs for 8 1/2 years and we’ve never gone into rematch (considered it once over quality of driving), although we’ve hosted plenty of APs in rematch – but when we used nursing, I fired nurses (mostly because they failed to show up for shift and I didn’t want to deal with anyone proven to be unreliable). The number of times my APs have failed to meet The Camel’s schoolbus – zero (and believe me her bus driver is very protective – I’d know!).

jennifer benner February 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I was just reading through all of these post and we have a need for a special needs au pair for our son . We are actually moving to Lyon France in May and are trying to find someone to work with our son. I see Amber is interested in something like this and I’m wondering if there is any way to get in touch with her. I have Pro Aupair looking for us, but most of the au pairs want to come to the U.S. Any help would be appreciated. thanks, jennifer

concerned au pair October 16, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Hi this is my situation. I am an extending au pair but I extended with another host family. We talked a lot by phone before matching and they told me that the oldest kid had some attention issues, and that the two other kids were so sweet and loving. I arrived to this house 1 month ago, but somehow I feel that my new host family did not tell the truth. The oldest kid DOES have attention issued plus he is really agressive.Durig this month I have never seen him smile he really has an angry expression in his face and he hits his parents all the time. He tried to hit me once but I did not allowed that and I was firm and direct to the kid letting him know that what he was trying to do was unacceptable. He is in troubles all the time at school because he hits and spits on the teachers and bites other kids (including his sibling and parents). His soccer coach expulsed him from the team because he was being mean with the other children and with the coach. I notice that when he does something mean he laughs and keep on doing it. He is defiant and stubborn. I said that they lied to me because they told me that the two little were lovely but they are just the same like his older brother plus the little girl is always spitting to me when she does not wanna do what I nicely asked her to do. and she is just 3!! I dont really know what to do because even if the kids are like that, the parents are super nice and warm, the schedule is so flexible and do not have to work fridays, saturdays and sundays. I really want to help the kids more tha thiking in a rematch. I don’t think that they kids are evil and sometimes they listen to me more than to their mom (once in a blue moon of course). I think that it would be a good idea to take the kids to professional help and I know because I studied psychology in my homecountry and when I apply on them what I learned at college it works. However, not always lol and I really want to improve their behavior but I dont know how to tell to the parents because when their teacher at school suggested that my host mom arrived home so upset because she thought that the teacher meant that the boy was crazy. Can you please give me more advices on how to deal with difficult children? honestly I am doing my best but sometimes he is just sooooo difficult and mean.

hOstCDmom October 16, 2011 at 5:04 pm

My advice to you: focus on the children’s behavior — NOT the solution *you* think they need.

Telling the parents what they should do, even cloaked in a mild form of a suggestion or question about professional help, will likely backfire and make the HP defensive. (And to some extent with justification – APs are at most 26 years old, and not parents. If they have specialist training they could have only been working for 4-5 years, MAX, and HP understandably will not give a lot of weight to their AP’s “professional opinion”. And that is if an AP actually has professional experience; if the AP only has had college classes or has a parent in the mental health field, then the HP will *definitely* not welcome advice from the AP on what to do!)

But, back to my original suggestion — tell the HP you would like to sit down with them and discuss the children’s behavior and how they want you to respond to various situations. Then, have written down a list of VERY SPECIFIC examples for each child (dates and times can help you be specific, as in “Last Tuesday, immediately after piano lesson, Sally did not want to get in the car and when I told Sally to get into the car, for the third time, she spat in my face, slapped my hand and told me to *&#$$– off”. Go over a list of examples that make clear the exact nature of the problem behavior. Don’t try to be euphemistic — be clear and direct, even though you will be describing things that are not positive about the host children. Look up words you need to describe behavior ahead of time, and write them down. Tell the HP what is happening and ask them how they want you to handle it. Tell them you need specific instructions because the behavior is serious and frequent and you want to ensure you are responding as they would like. You should also certainly stress that you are NOT comfortable being hit, spit on, called names or being sworn at. Some whiny “I don’t want to, you can’t make me” responses from host kids, while unacceptable behavior, are probably to be expected upon occasion in many families. But hitting, spitting, slapping, name calling or swearing at an AP crosses a line.

I also suggest that you inform your LCC of what is going on (in writing = email) and that you have spoken to the HParents. Describe your meeting with the HParents, and the outcome. Be specific with the LCC. If this situation does not get resolved you may want to rematch and having a clear, written record of both the issues you faced and how you attempted to maturely resolve it directly with the HParents will go a long way to helping you get a good recommendation from your LCC and support from your agency.

Taking a Computer Lunch October 16, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I agree that you need to ask the HF how they want you to deal with behaviors. However, whatever you do BE consistent. Personally, I expect that my children will not physically harm nor be disrespectful to the AP and that the AP has an arsenal of privileges she may take away from the child when boundaries are crossed (and I will respect that loss of privileges). I will say that my mentally retarded child does not always behave well, but she does understand a firm “No” and over time she, too, exhibits self-control (I am fortunate that she is small enough to sting but not wound).

Typically developing children in a family where one child is “sick” (either from a physiological illness like cancer or a mental illness), often act out (I’m dealing with a child who is extremely afraid of his own mortality at the moment – after having seen his sister spend a week on life support after surgery). They are not the center of their parent’s attention, and at times act badly to get a little attention. They may respond well to rewards. “If you don’t spit when you disagree with me, then I will read you a story at x time.” “If you behave well, then I will color with you.” Little kids need to have reasonable boundaries and know that they won’t shift. They also need to “win” once in a while. If you are able to arrange it, try to have the HP take the difficult older brother once in a while so you can do something special with the other kids. If you are to stay with this family, then they really need someone one their side.

As someone raising a special needs child, I know that 90% of my AP’s time is spent in caring giving for that child, so I really appreciate it when she goes out of her way to play with my typically developing child. He appreciates it, too, and now that he is getting older, he often heads to the airport with me when it’s time to say goodbye because of his own need to have closure and express his grief at her departure.

While I admire your own conflict between wanting to stay because you think you will be able to have a positive influence, I do want to state that if the child is a danger to you, then you should rematch. I agree with HOstCDmom — before you do so, contact the LCC and have a conversation with her about what is going on. You want her on your side to help you find another family to complete your extension year. Don’t feel guilty if you need to leave. No AP should be battered or bruised. When a child is out of control, then the parents need to find another solution to their childcare needs.

Comments on this entry are closed.