Self Control And Children With Special Needs

January 10, 2012

Preventing Behaviors

Meltdown: “a total loss of self-control.”  The meltdown is a common  characteristic of children with ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or on the autism spectrum and is dreaded by parents when they occur.    There is nothing amusing about them.   Meltdowns often involve every known form of manipulation, anger, and loss of control that a child can muster up to display.   A meltdown is usually very loud, risky at times, frustrating, and exhausting  for both parent and child.  It can be scary.

Recently, I read a great article by Reggie Joiner in the Orange Parents blog about the need for all  children to develop self-control.  Self-control is essential for our children if we want them to grow up and excel in the Christian life and receive honor from the Lord.  It is a parents responsibility to help their child to develop self-control (Prov.22:6), and as Reggie rightly pointed out:

“One of the myths parents buy into is that you can’t teach self-control because it’s a part of how a child’s personality is wired. Most counselors agree that anyone can learn self-control. It’s not easy…it has to be intentionally and continually developed. But just like you would use your skill to build a wall back in places that are broken, you can build more self-control into your home.”

He’s right.  Self-control can be learned.  But what is it about the special way in which a child with autism, Asperger, or ADHD is “wired” that causes them to have meltdowns?  What is is about the way their brain functions that makes learning self-control a bit more of a challenge?  Answer: executive function.   The brains frontal and prefrontal lobes are the primary “home” of executive function.

Executive function can be defined as, “a set of cognitive processes that involve mental control and self-regulation.”   Weak executive functioning skills, according to research, negatively effect a child’s impulse control or ability to stop and think before acting.

In other words, kids with a diagnosis of autism, Asperger, and ADHD often have difficulties learning self-control due to weak executive functioning skills because it’s the way they are “wired.”  Is that an excuse for making poor choices and engaging in meltdowns….no.   However, it does mean that specific strategies may be needed to help your child learn self-control.

There are some effective, research-based strategies, I call them Positive Support Strategies, that you can use to help your child with special needs learn self-control.  A “First-Then” Board is one of many evidence-based Positive Support Strategies.  It’s easy to implement.  Here’s a 13-minute video on the basics of how to use a First-Then Board.

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


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4 Comments on “Self Control And Children With Special Needs”

  1. drgrcevich Says:


    The challenge you touch on is that not all kids (or parents) are starting from the same place in terms of their capacity for self-control.

    Church staff and volunteers need to understand that many families stop going to church because of the judgmental attitudes they’ve encountered in past experiences. One mom of two boys with ADHD put it best…”People in the church think they can tell when a disability ends and bad parenting begins.”

    I agree that parents and kids can (and should) work on developing self-control. But we shouldn’t assume that the kid who struggles with self-control doesn’t love Jesus, or assume they don’t have good parents who love God and teach them Biblical virtues.


    • SpecialNeedsMinistry Says:

      Who’s assuming that a kid who struggles with self-control doesn’t love Jesus, Steve? I struggle with self-control sometimes…does that mean that I don’t love Jesus? Of course not. We could go a whole step forward and simply say that struggling with self-control is a condition of being human.

      Just to be clear because I don’t want to read into your last statement: I love God. I definitely have two boys who struggle with both self-injurious and aggressive behaviors. I pray with my boys at night and say a blessing over them every morning, and guess what? They still have meltdowns from time to time. There’s no reason to think that I would think any less of any other parent who is in the same situation that I’am.


  2. Rob Lowe Says:

    We had a young girl in our children’s ministry that used to become very angry and attempt to hit some of our volunteers so to me that sounds like a meltdown. I wish that I could have done better at trying to understand what was happening inside of her. How is that tied in to what you are blogging about?


    • SpecialNeedsMinistry Says:

      Rob, in various crisis intervention models physical aggression would be considered a loss of self-control. I appreciate your desire to have had a better understanding of “why?” she was becoming angry and attempting to strike others. That’s the point of this post: there are REASONS that most kids with autism, Asperger, and/or ADHD have meltdowns. Many people simply don’t go beyond the thought that it’s intentional or a choice or poor parenting.

      There are a variety of potential causes for a meltdown and many of them are related to the unique way that a child on the spectrum is “wired.” I happened to pick “executive function” as a possible cause (it is for MY son with severe autism) but others might tell you that the behaviors are related to biomedical causes, dietary causes, or other unique factors related to the way certain children are “wired.”

      The other night my son has a huge meltdown when our family was out dining. We’re talking standing up, screaming, pounding his fists on the table, and no amount of talk or reasoning on my part was getting thru to him. I had to walk him out to the minivan to calm down. I still could not tell you what triggered it…and I’m certain that most patrons thought that my son was being a spoiled, rude teenager…however, I knew he was not simply making a choice to act that way.

      Anyhow, I appreciate your desire to try and understand what was going on with the child that you mentioned. It’s rare that anyone stops to consider that some children with special needs are wired differently, and that difference, may be the actual cause of the behavior.


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