Disciplining a special needs child

Around age two, children start asserting their independence by trying to do things for themselves.  At least that’s what I’ve read.  I actually haven’t seen much of a DIY-impulse around here at all.  Rather than letting the Captain try stepping out of the nest, I generally find myself pushing him, shoving him, dragging him inch by inch out of his tree.  If it were up to Ryan, I’d be holding his food while he bit it.

One of the most independent-like things he does regularly is running ahead of us to get from our apartment to our car.  As soon as we hit the hallway between the buildings of our complex, he books it as fast as he can down the hall, whips around the corner to the right, flings open the fire door, and starts down the stairs to the garage.  He pauses there on the stairs and flashes a maniacal grin when we finally catch up to him there.  

The other day, my mother came to visit, and the three of us were heading down to the car to go out for lunch.  Ryan stood patiently in the elevator, playing with some to-be-mailed bills I had handed him.  When the elevator opened, he dashed down the hall as usual.  But instead of turning right to get to the garage, he turned left.

To the left, there’s a laundry room, a locked storage room, and a door leading outside.

He wasn’t in the laundry room.  And the door to outside was wide open.

I ran outside, screaming his name.  No answer.

I saw Jonathan riding his bike in the street, and I screeched “Did you see Ryan go by here?”  Yes, he said, he ran down the sidewalk.  It suddenly occurred to me what Ryan was doing: he was going to the nearest mailbox.  On the main street.  I ran to catch up.

So you shouldn’t worry too much, I should mention that the sidewalk in question is over two blocks long, but with no streets to cross between our building and the mailbox.


I caught Ryan about three-quarters of the way to the mailbox.  I grabbed his arms, got down low, and freaked the hell out lectured him that he is Never To Leave The House Without Me and that Terrible Things could have happened to him.  He stared blankly.  I couldn’t tell if he understood my explanation of The Rules.  He seemed unimpressed with my yelling/imploring/maternal theatrics.  He just wanted to mail the letters, thanks.

I saw my mother approaching us; she had gone searching for Ryan in a different direction.  After determining that Grandma had not had a heart attack, the three of us walked to the mailbox together.  Ryan mailed the bills, and we walked to the car together.  Mostly together.  OK, Ryan was still running ahead of us a little, but he stayed within sight.

It is totally frustrating and unsatisfying to yell at someone who does not react.  How can I know if I’ve gotten my message across to Ryan?  If Ryan were a neurotypical kid, I could punish him, and he could connect the punishment to the offense, and I would know he had learned something.  With Ryan, I have a hard time knowing what connections he’s able to grasp.  I’ve tried taking away computer games as a penalty for a certain behavioral problem we’re trying to correct, but as devastated as he becomes when he’s denied his precious games, the problematic behavior continues unabated, in part, I believe, because he does not really see the cause-effect relationship between offensive behavior and loss of computer privileges.

But we keep up the negative reinforcement model (as well as tons of positive reinforcement – Stickers! Chocolate! Prizes!) anyway, because we hope that eventually he will get it.  We can’t just throw up our hands and assume he’s incapable of learning.

So I will keep yelling at him, even though he stares blankly, because someday he will hear me.  Hopefully before he gets himself in too much trouble.

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Meredith Zolty
My kid is great! And he has PDD-NOS and ADHD (e-i-e-i-o). The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Watch us navigate the world of neurodiversity at
Meredith Zolty


My kid is great! And he has PDD-NOS and ADHD (e-i-e-i-o). The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Watch us navigate the world of neurodiversity at

0 thoughts on “Disciplining a special needs child

  • Great post. It is so hard to not give up. I think that the best thing you can do is to take the advice of other parents who have been where you are. If you’re not connected to the community then try books like, There’s Something About Daniel by author Robyn Stecher, it not exactly a how to manual, but it helps.

  • Amen, thanks for sharing and letting me know my occasional freak out screaming for my own benefit when my child returns from out of my sight makes me part of a group!


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