Teaching Obedience to a Child with Special Needs

by Maureen Monfore, www.ChildwiseChat.com

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are probably well aware of the rising incidences of special needs in our world. Autism, ADD, ADHD and other developmental delays are so prevalent, we are experiencing a nation-wide shortage of
occupational therapists.

What does this mean for you? First, you should be on the lookout for any developmental inconsistencies in your child. The earlier you recognize a problem and get help for it, the better off your child will be. For this very reason, we have federally funded “early intervention” places that provide services to special needs children under the age of 3.

In fact, many children can overcome their diagnoses through therapy. I have a friend whose son was recently evaluated after years of therapy for Autism, and they decided he no longer qualified for the diagnosis. Amazing.

In addition to getting the help the child may need, it’s also important for parents to understand their child’s special needs as they decide how to raise the child. If parents do notice any inconsistencies, they can take them into consideration in their obedience training.

Understanding the label

When you think of a child who has been labeled as being “special needs,” you typically imagine a child whose developmental delays are plainly obvious to the untrained eye. You think of a child who is very low functioning.

In reality, most “special needs” children don’t make their diagnoses well known. In fact, there are times when my son is acting out in public that I wish he had a sign on his head announcing his diagnosis so people would be more understanding.

It’s this misunderstanding of the term “special needs” that makes it so difficult for parents to accept. The diagnosis itself (piece of paper from a doctor) doesn’t fundamentally change who the child is, nor does the classification of “special needs.” Yet many parents resist the notion simply because of the stereotype.

This is unfortunate when a child could clearly benefit from therapy, but the parent is resisting the diagnosis purely from an egotistical standpoint. I see this typically with dads. They are often in denial that there is anything “wrong” with the child, even after a diagnosis has been made. It is usually the mom who pursues the diagnosis because, although it’s difficult for any parent to think their child may be less than perfect, mom knows that getting help is in the best interests of the child.

What is sensory processing disorder?
Most of us are familiar with Autism, ADD and ADHD. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is less well known, but possibly much more prevalent. In fact, many kids with Autism, ADD or ADHD also have sensory processing difficulties.

Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at him, my eldest, William, has two special circumstances that my husband and I must consider. He has sensory processing disorder and gifted tendencies. (The giftedness is nice, but it must also be treated as a special need since it lies outside the framework of a “neuro-typical” child.) If you’re unfamiliar with sensory processing disorder, it basically means that there is something misfiring in his brain when it comes to all seven of his senses.

The five senses that most people have heard of are sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch. There are two others that are less well known. The proprioceptive sense affects our determination of where our bodies exist in space. If you have a child who frequently bumps into things or stands too closely to others, he might have difficulty with proprioception. The seventh sense is the vestibular sense. This affects the part of the brain that makes us dizzy.

There is so much to this disorder because a child can be under-responsive, over-responsive or sensory seeking in each of the seven senses. Typically, a child with SPD will show several sensory-seeking tendencies. He will mouth objects (well past the baby phase), have difficulties sleeping, react with a fight or flight response to the most minor touch, display hyperactive tendencies, react strongly to an itchy tag on the back of his shirt, cover his ears at the slightest loud noise, have a melt-down over the seams in his socks, and more. My son has displayed all of these tendencies at one point or another.

Here are some other symptoms of SPD**:
  • Makes noises when trying to concentrate
  • Loves being upside down
  • Hates having his hair, fingernails or toenails cut
  • Will typically do an “army crawl” to avoid putting his hands on the floor
  • Acts out aggressively or impulsively when overwhelmed by sensory stimulation
  • Doesn’t cry when seriously hurt
  • Often seems unaware of body sensations such as hunger, hot or cold
  • Is constantly on the move
  • Likes crashing, bashing, bumping, jumping and roughhousing
  • Shows a strong preference for excessive spinning, swinging or rolling
  • Constantly touches objects
  • Often licks, sucks or chews on non-food items such as hair, pencils or clothing
Teaching first-time obedience

As you can imagine, teaching first-time obedience to a child with special needs is a challenging endeavor, but it can be done! In addition to getting the professional help they need, we must make special accommodations in our first-time obedience training by giving them constant, gentle reminders, getting their attention with physical touch, getting eye contact first, not requiring a verbal response (from a child with a speech delay) and using visual cues.

When it comes to obedience in my home, I have to constantly remind myself that William doesn’t always react as a typical child would. At the moment, we are dealing with auditory filtering difficulties. Basically, he has a hard time distinguishing background noises from the voice of someone speaking directly to him. When we are in noisy places like restaurants, he typically shuts down.

His gifted tendencies play into this as well. His imagination and daydreaming make it difficult for him to focus on the world around him. This is sometimes incorrectly attributed to the inattentiveness commonly found in ADD.

As if that weren’t enough, William’s SPD affects his impulse control. If we are out running errands and his senses are on overload, I need to watch him like a hawk.

You can learn more about teaching first-time obedience (to special needs and typically developing children) in my eBook titled, Live in Harmony with First-Time Obedience: How to Use Love, Authority and Consistency to Teach Your Child to Obey the First Time, Every Time.

**Sensational Kids, Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., OTR


  1. "This is unfortunate when a child could clearly benefit from therapy, but the parent is resisting the diagnosis purely from an egotistical standpoint."

    This happened to a relative of mine. My mom (a child developmental teacher) pointed out issues to this child's mom several times throughout the years. The mom refused to admit something was wrong. Now at 27 years of age this child is finally diagnosed and getting help. But he is and has suffered dramatically from the delayed diagnosis. He missed out on years of help that he could have been getting as a child.


  2. Just a reminder that special needs goes WAY beyond the items listed in this post. Due to the prevalence of Autism, ADD, and ADHD the terms "special needs" seems to have been somewhat hijacked in recent years with so many kids having a diagnosis that fits into one of these categories.

    It does seem that parents whose children have more subtle "special needs" have a harder time with the label. But for those parents who have children that are mentally retarded, physically challenged, or have other medical conditions that prevent them from functioning as a "normal" child like our little Caden the acceptance of a "special needs" label is not so tough... even for a dad. ;-)

    I would add that the fear of labels does go deeper with some parents. The label is carried for life and should not always be embraced quickly. Schools like the labels because they get additional funding for "special needs" kids. At the same time I have seen parents struggle with teachers who will not push a child to complete their work and will simply default to making an excuse for the child based on the diagnosis. Sherry and I just worked through this with a family a few weeks ago. It was bad enough for them that they had pulled their child out of public school and was beginning to home school. Many of the things you listed as symptoms of SPD1 could simply be unchecked behavior caused by poor parenting practices. I am in the camp that believes that the conditions you listed are over diagnosed and often prematurely pushed on the parents by schools. I just recommend that parents proceed with caution.

    In short I do agree that FTO can be achieved with most special needs kids. It just may look a little different in how it is executed from the child's perspective. And please remember that the term "special needs" covers a lot more than Autism, ADD, and ADHD.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts hank.


  4. Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog. When I stopped by your facebook page this post caught my eye!
    I definitely used to wish that my son had a sign over his head when he used to have meltdowns! He has Asperger's and is also diagnosed with ADHD, Anxiety and Depression. He is also gifted.
    I am not sure about the ADHD diagnosis now that we have the Asperger's diagnosis but I do know that the ADHD meds have always helped a lot.

    Anyways I really liked how you pointed out that the delays may not be obvious. My son did not have obvious developmental delays. The issues that he had were difficult to put together. He did get services through the years though as we were all trying to figure out what all the diagnoses were.

    I hear where some people say it is over diagnosed but I also see where it is underdiagnosed. Kids with developmental delays and the parents are told to wait it out. They wait and the child misses a couple of years of important services.

    But you are right, regardless of the diagnosis there still must be discipline, it is just handled differently. Thanks! Will be checking out more info on your blog!

  5. aspieside.com
    Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for the great thoughts!