How to Perform for Special Needs Children

How to Perform for Special Needs Children

From December 2016 to January of this year, Doug Scheer of Scheer Genius Assembly Shows, together with Kids Entertainer Hub, ran a contest for all Kids Entertainer Podcast listeners. For a chance to win Doug’s hit comedy routine Punctuation Pandemonium, we asked you to share a story of how you connected with a special needs child. The entries we received were so moving and insightful that we decided to collate them in one post and share them with you. Here are some of them.

Download Training Tip 155 - How to Perform for Special Needs Children

*Note: Permission was granted by the owners of the entries to include their stories in this post.

Last weekend I was doing a show for a charity event where the majority of the crowd were adults. One of the routines (celebrity smart-ass/Bill Abbott) required me to pick and bring up a person to help out. I usually don’t use smaller kids for this part of the show. I go for upper teens as it needs them to be up on celebrities that are popular. There is not a whole lot of instructions to be followed for the effect. I asked if anyone was really knowledgeable about celebrities and such. A bunch of hands went up, but I noticed a girl waving her hand around more than the others. I liked the enthusiasm, so I asked her to come up. It was dark in the audience and I couldn’t really make out her face that well. I’m glad for that because I was about to learn a great lesson and be opened up to a new way of thinking that ties in with this podcast.

As she came up and came into the light of the stage, it became immediately apparent that she had Down’s syndrome. Shamefully I admit that internally I was thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh, what have I done!” I had no idea how she was going to act or if this was going to be something that she could follow. I have seen different levels of Down’s and I didn’t know what I was going to get. Nonetheless, I immediately made the decision that I wasn’t going to change the way that I acted or spoke to her at all. I was going to treat her like I would anybody else, which to some would be a no-brainier. But I think that when we try to be sensitive to a person with special needs, it can come off as talking down to them or something else. I did not want that.

The routine went on as normal and she did perfect with a big smile on her face. At the end, the credit is given to the helper as it was their “intuition” that made it possible. I told the crowd to give it up for her and the great job that she did. The crowd applauded loudly and the look on her face was very rewarding. She waved to the crowd as I escorted her back down the stairs.

kids entertainer michael moon
Michael Moon

Afterwards she stayed back. She and what I guessed to be her dad came over to me and thanked me again. She said it was so much fun, and it was apparent that I had made her day. Her dad shook my hand and gave me a look as he was thanking me. As a father myself, I could recognize that look as one of pride. To him I took a chance on his daughter that others might not have. I was humbled and it had me look internally at my own preconceptions about special needs people. As I was listening to this podcast, it cemented my decision to learn more about including special needs people/children in my show. That girl helped me that night more than I helped her.

Miguel Najera III

Michael Moon

A few months ago, a woman approached me after a gig and asked if I would do her daughter’s 10th birthday party. I don’t usually do children’s parties but when I heard that her daughter was recovering from fighting cancer, and during her healing process she followed me on Facebook, how could I refuse? But I thought it would be better if I went and taught her some basic magic effects, which is what I did. So at her party, she was part of the show, not just watching it. She was brilliant. I wouldn’t mind betting we might have a new budding magician in our midst.

Martin Stringer

Mairtin the Mentalist

children's entertainer craig colombel
Craig Colombel

Good information. Over the past two years, I have done shows not for special needs children, but for special needs adults at a year-round day camp/program for these adults. After performing this summer, they booked me for the Christmas party (on the 19th). After the first show, one came up and told me about his father, who as a reporter interviewed and introduced him to a magician, and he was telling me how he liked helping me. In the second show, I had a woman help me with a trick. After the show, she told me that it was her birthday and someone in her family always gave her a magic trick to learn. Now she was going to tell that person her magic experience and that she did a trick for others. I have not dealt with a special needs child yet (that I know of) but your web presentation and handout will help with the group I have performed for and for the future. Thanks.

Craig Colombel

Want to learn more about how to work with special needs children? Then don’t miss these:
KEH068: How to Work with Children with Special Needs
Working with Special Needs Children on Stage

It is very tough to choose just one time when I worked with special needs children. I work with them, as well as with special needs adults, quite often. I guess one that stands out very clearly to me is a young man named Cornell. Cornell has autism and does not speak at all. His mom came to me and asked if I could do a birthday party for her son. She explained his condition to me and told me that I probably would not be able to get him to help me.

Cornell, because of his condition, does not have friends or so we may assume. The day of the party came, and Cornell and his family arrived at my theater for the show. I will admit, I was a bit nervous. This was the first time I had worked with a special needs individual. So I took the stage and had an audience of five. We all know how tough that is. I started my show as usual and one of the first things I did was bring up the birthday child, the star of the show. Mom was right, I could not get him to come up. So I went to him and performed “The Star of the Show” trick right at his seat. I got no response from him at all. I was beside myself how I was going to make this work.

Well, I just pushed on. When it came time to feature the birthday child again, I asked Cornell to once again join me on the stage. He hesitated briefly and the next thing I knew, he was standing right next to me. We performed a cake pan routine and Cornell did all of the magic. At the end when the foam cake appeared, Cornell had the biggest smile on his face and was waving the magic wand up and down and shaking with excitement. His family gave him a standing ovation. You could see just how proud he was. It was truly a magical moment for me.

kids entertainer kyle groves
Kyle Groves

A year had gone by and Cornell stayed in the back of my mind somewhere, but I never really thought I would see him again. His mom called me and asked if I could come to his school and do a show for his class, again for his birthday. I was more than happy to do that. I got to the school, set up in the special needs classroom and started my show. Cornell helped with just about every minute of that show. At the end, the other kids in the class were high-fiving him and hugging him. He had become their hero in that moment.

You see, it is because of Cornell that I now do close to 25 performances a year for special needs kids and adults. Cornell taught me that while there may physically be something wrong, they are just people too. I think we tend to forget that aspect of it when we see a person with special needs. They just want to be involved and they just want to be “the star” like any other kid out there. I have seen Cornell and his mom at other events that I work since then. It is always a pleasure to see them and see Cornell’s face light up and greet me with one of the tightest bear hugs you will ever get.

Kyle Groves

My name is Conrad Colon and I’m an entertainer from New Jersey in the USA. About 5 years ago, I met a young girl named Jacqueline and her family through the 4-H program I volunteer with. 4‑H is a community of more than 100 public universities across the U.S. that provides experiences where young people learn by doing. Kids complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and citizenship, while receiving guidance from adult mentors. The program encourages youth to “make the best better” and take on proactive leadership roles.

Jacqueline was a bright, energetic and joyful child who always wanted to see the “Magic Man”. Jacqueline, who is being raised by her grandparents, is an active member in the 4-H and was a part of a dairy cow project in the program. She was also a member of the Dairy Quiz Bowl, a trivia competition team which her grandmother ran. That club met and continues to meet on the same night in the room next door to the magic club I run. After every Dairy Quiz Bowl meeting for over a year, she stood at the door and watched the magic. The club invited her in but being shy and nervous around larger groups, Jacqueline preferred to stand at the door. I loved seeing her enjoy the magic, and my young magicians loved the extra audience member.

That same year, Jacqueline went to a 4-H summer camp program that I assisted in running. As a camper, I got to know her more and she was what our camp director called a “special friend”. I was later told by her grandfather that she was on the autism spectrum, in addition to being diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. But none of this mattered. At camp and in 4-H, she wasn’t seen as different or treated any differently by fellow campers or club members.

Kids entertainer conrad cologne
Conrad Colon

In 2013 Jacqueline decided she wanted to become a magician. So that fall, she joined the 4-H Magicians Guild. Her grandparents and our club leaders were skeptical of whether she was going to stick with the club, but she surprised all of us. She loved magic and over time has become more and more confident. We started with the Jumping Rubber Band and this grew to be her favorite trick. She confidently says she’s a master of the Jumping Rubber Band.

Teaching her and creating a curriculum that worked best for her allowed me to grow as a person. Up until this point, I have never had a student with special needs. Jacqueline taught me that a label of someone and their ability is just that—a label. She has grown to be a more confident young lady and a good magician. The moments we have shared on club field trips to magic shops, with her family cheering her on at cow shows and at camp, have become some of my fondest. At the end of the day, Jacqueline has taught me that the real magic in what we do is communication and building relationships with others. Although I teach her tricks, she teaches me the real lessons.

Conrad Colon

As a children’s entertainer, I have done hundreds and hundreds of performances for audiences of all kinds. Many of these have been for groups of preschoolers. In fact, preschoolers are at the perfect age for an act like mine. You see, during my act, everything goes wrong. Magic is interspersed with crazy antics. Children laugh, point, and shout as I pretend not to notice that my wands break, my gloves won’t come off, and my tricks seemingly won’t work. Of course, I am greatly surprised by it all. Preschoolers love it, but it makes for a very noisy 30 minutes!

On one particular summer afternoon, I had been asked to do my magic show for a group of preschoolers at an autism camp. I had worked at this same camp several times before, but this day was destined to be different. It was about to be the day that the simple act of a child would make a greater impression on me than I would be making on him.

My act started in its usual way. Everything was going wrong again! Most of the children were smiling and laughing and shouting at me to let me know what I should be doing to make my magic tricks work. The noise was apparently too much for one small boy in the back. His displeasure started as a small cry and ended as a full-blown outburst. I could see the fear in his eyes as he rose to run away from me.

Several teachers gently guided him out of the room. After several minutes, he returned with the workers trailing behind him and sat down again. It was my chance to reach out to him in a way that would help him to have as much fun as the others. However, before I had a chance to do that, his apprehension got the best of him again. I supposed the noise and chaos were just too much for this young boy who couldn’t express himself with words. Once again, the teachers helped him out of the room. They would, no doubt, find him a quieter place to wait. I returned to my act and called two children up to help me with the next trick. About halfway through, I felt a small tug on my hand. I looked down and saw the little boy who had twice been taken out of the room. Before I even had a chance to be surprised, he reached up and placed his hand in mine. For the remainder of my act, he stood next to me, his fingers curled around my wide balloon-twister hands.

I learned later on that he had returned on his own and bravely approached me from behind. He had heard the other children laughing and didn’t want to be left out. The silly antics had drawn him in. We made a connection that day. The little boy who was not able to express his feelings in words had expressed a world of feelings through his one simple gesture. It was clear that no matter our age, size, or limitations, we all want the same simple things in life: a sense of belonging, loads of joy and laughter, and a friend to hold onto along the way.

I was quite moved by that young boy I met two summers ago, and I think about him often. It’s a great reminder for entertainers everywhere that while we may realize the impact we can have on the children in the audience, what we might not realize is the impact they can have on us.

Jerry Clapp

Mr. Twister

As a member of the Club Magico Italiano and Magicians Without Borders organization, I did a magic show as a gift to the sick children at the hospital Gesú Bambino (Child Jesus) at Rome in 2004. The hospital is the largest pediatric hospital and research centre in Europe. It was established in 1869 for less fortunate children.

robert mardini at hospital gesu bambino
Robert Mardini at the Gesù Bambino Hospital in Rome, 2004.

On the second day of my show, the principal of the hospital called me and said, “Robert, I have something to tell you. Today one child was leaving the hospital because his parents want him to spend the remaining few days of his life at home. Do you know what the child begged his parents? He asked them to stay one more day at the hospital to attend your second magic show.” His words impacted me a lot. They were the most important words that I have ever heard in my entire magical career. How inspiring and wise a child can be! With all his pain and suffering, he still was willing to participate in my show. Yes, as children’s entertainers, we have the power to change kids’ lives through our art and make a difference. Finally, at the end of our lives, we can rest in peace because we had made this world a little better than we found it.

Robert Kendirjian Mardini

I was doing my “Gerry the Great and His Super Safety Show” at a small church daycare facility. I was talking and teaching about how to get help when there is an emergency. A six-year-old girl started talking and kind of interrupting the show, and my training as a children’s entertainer and my gut told me to let her “get it out of her system” and not to squash it. For some children, they just need the entertainer to acknowledge them and then on with the show. Strangely the teachers all had a huge surprised look on their faces too, so I listened and away she went.

The story she told was of her falling asleep in bed with her dad and him passing away during the night, and how she had to get help and how important knowing how to dial 911 is. It totally knocked me for a loop. I got down on my knees and looked her in the eyes and acknowledged her story. I said I would say a prayer of peace for her. It was a church nursery, thank God!

I went on with the show and afterwards the teachers all came up to thank me. They said this event happened weeks ago and the little girl had not talked much or opened up at all about this incident. They were amazed this happened, because she hardly talked at all. So I think what we do is so important and we should never take our jobs for granted. I was doing another show there a few months later and the teachers said the little girl had changed dramatically, that she was getting counseling and was well on her way to being a normal kid. What a blessing it was to experience this miracle.

Gerry Thompson

Gerry The Great

Download Training Tip 155 - How to Perform for Special Needs Children
Click Here to Download Your How to Perform for Special Needs Children Handout

June 2011, I had just started face painting “professionally” and had rented a booth at a large festival in Chattanooga, TN. Taking advantage of a break in business, I sat outside my booth and noticed two adult women (I suspected mom and grandma), along with a young man of about 16 years old. He looked like any young man that age except for the fact that he was holding the hands of both women. We all smiled at each other and as they walked by for whatever reason, I blurted something like, “Free face painting for boys in a blue shirt!” I don’t know why I said that but I thought they simply didn’t want to spend the $5.

kids entertainer christine maentz
Christine Maentz

As the women started politely refusing, the young boy came right to me. He didn’t say anything but just pointed to a superhero mask design. He was very quiet but obviously nervous, so instead of me holding him steady with my hand towards the top of his head, I held his face in my hand under his chin and just spoke to him gently as I went about face painting. In my peripheral vision, I noticed the women hugging each other and the youngest one was actually sobbing. I had no idea what was going on and it never occurred to me that the sobbing had to do with the boy.

I finished painting, showed him his reflection in my mirror, and watched his face light up when he saw himself! He even hugged me shyly. I looked at “grandma” and asked if everything was alright. What she told me blew my mind and I understood why mom was sobbing. The boy was autistic and had never approached a stranger. Only under unusual circumstances did he ever let go of her or his mom’s hand. He was holding neither while I painted his face. Most importantly, he had never let anyone besides his mom or grandmother touch him. When mom saw me holding his face in my hands, that is when she “lost” it. She hugged me and called me an angel. While I certainly don’t feel like an angel, I realize that I do have a strange knack with special needs kids, whether it’s with face painting, balloons or my simple magic tricks. Every time I encounter a special child, I feel privileged, like I’ve been given a precious gift. These are the moments when I slow down and give my undivided attention. I have no idea what kind of impact I have. I just pray I have made these children know they are loved and are important.

Christine Maentz

kids entertainer george gubbins
George Gubbins with a great audience member

This attitude or “technique” I´m going to share has helped me calm many a child, especially small children ages 2-4 (and also bigger ones) when they´re fussy or going through a small crisis because something didn´t go their way, or mommy had to leave and they were left crying, or they lost when playing musical chairs, etc. What attitude I´m talking about here is one that uses distraction and understanding, mixed in with a calm and nice attitude on my part. If they’re little kids, I kneel down or take them in my arms, and that in itself starts soothing and reassuring them that everything is going to be alright. It shows them that there is somebody who cares and understands them. It´s putting yourself in their shoes. Our spirits are contagious: if we convey an attitude of peace and reassurance, it tells them that we care. For them we’re some sort of a hero that comes to their rescue. So in essence, using patience, love, kindness, understanding and good humour goes a long way when dealing with children in distress. It works wonders. Hope this is of help to you.

George Gubbins

Mago Jean David Ilusionista

A little over 8 years ago, my wife and I became the parents to a beautiful baby girl. Brooklyn was our second child, but things did not go as planned. Brooklyn was born with a rare birth defect called Bladder Exstrophy where her bladder was on the outside of her body. As a result, Brooklyn has had several surgeries throughout her young life and has been diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease. On top of all of that, Brooklyn was also born with a learning disability.

This young girl is by far the strongest and greatest person that I have ever met in my life. We often tell her that God made her this way because he knew she could handle it. I know that I could not go through what she has gone through. Oftentimes I am forced to watch as other children make fun of the way she acts, or the fact that she still wears pull-ups because she has no control of the bladder that she had to have reconstructed for her from other parts of her body.

Brooklyn however just continues to be one of the most happy, exciting, and energetic kids I have ever met. Through all the tough things I have to watch her go through, there is nothing that makes me as happy as when Brooklyn laughs. She coincidentally also really enjoys my magic. I gave her her own deck of cards and she carries them everywhere and is always asking people to draw a card. Although she doesn’t know any tricks with them, she is a much better performer than I am.

I recently did a show for a group of kids at a community event. I noticed one young girl sitting in the back. She would get really excited at every trick I did. I knew that I needed to have this young girl come up and help me with a trick.

When she came up and I spoke with her, it was evident that this girl had a learning disability also and she reminded me instantly of my own daughter Brooklyn. I gave this girl my magic wand and let her know that she would be doing the magic for the next trick. It was a simple change bag trick where we connected four different handkerchiefs. Although the trick was simple, the reaction was priceless. She waved the wand over the change bag and said some magic words. The smile and excitement that came across this girl’s face when she saw that she had done magic was by far the greatest moment of my young magical career. I couldn’t help but think of the smile and excitement of my own daughter and what a wonderful blessing that is.

Clint Morton


I was hired to entertain a special needs boy for his birthday party. He only had his siblings and his best friend who was also a special needs child. He loves Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. As I went about creating balloon sculptures and doing a bit of pocket magic, I quickly became aware of his and his friend’s discomfort when a balloon was “popped”, the birthday boy more so than his friend. I reassured him that I could lessen the sound through being careful of the size and tension of the bubble that was to be popped. I apologized for my error on the first pop and showed him how I could make the tiniest of bubbles and make it very soft so it would make hardly a sound. This is the manner in which I continued when a deflation was necessary in creating figures during the rest of my stay. He was quite pleased that a balloon could be deflated without the loud noise and the visual “busting” of those precious balloons.

Eight months later when his large birthday creation had shrunk to a mere few inches, I was asked to deliver another at Christmas. I was more than happy to do it and drive the 20 miles to present it to him at no charge. I supersized the dragon to five feet in length from the original 30 inches. There is nothing more rewarding than those multiple full-squeeze hugs you get from a special needs child who I was told by his mother “does not give out hugs very often”. I was the recipient of the best gift! Take your time with our special friends and understand their needs and concerns and you will make a great friend.

Jonathan Harmer


children's entertainer christian langbelle
Christian Langbelle

Recently I was booked to perform at the local housewives’ associations trade fair. They wanted two shows so I packed my usual kids show as well as my family show. In addition to the two shows, I was given a booth to promote my business. I noticed a girl with Down’s syndrome hovering around my booth, but she seemed to be a bit shy so she didn’t come too close. Well it became time for my first show and she sat on the first row with bright gleaming eyes and a big smile. I decided to get her help for my balloonatic-inspired opener. I didn’t bring her up, so neither she nor her parents would feel put on the spot. So I had her help me from her seat. Boy was she blown away by my clowning antics. She had huge belly laughs and that transferred to all the other kids. A great show was on the way. Later she visited the booth for a chat and even later she was on the first row for the second show. I think I got a really big fan that day.

Christian Langballe

Christian de Wilde

My wife was the one who got me interested in magic to entertain my, at the time, two daughters. I really never got totally involved until my youngest was born. She was born with a congenital heart defect with other issues. When she was around 5, it was apparent that she was going to be different in many ways in development. I was introduced to many special needs programs and I wanted to provide something to make them feel like everyone else. My daughter is now 10, and she is only the size of a three-year-old and is educationally delayed, but she loves to be treated as her sisters are treated. Every day I learn from these kids not to be afraid of life, and in turn not to be afraid of entertaining them.

Joe Cordi

A Show by Joe

What did you think of all these stories shared by fellow kids entertainers? We think they’re all beautifully and honestly told. Do you have a story of your own? Doug’s contest may be over, but we’d still love to hear what you have to share. Feel free to tell your story in the comments section below.

Download Training Tip 155 - How to Perform for Special Needs Children