The autism-self-regulation connection

The more I’ve worked with people with autism, the more I realize it’s largely a problem with self-regulation. Children with autism have varying weaknesses in most of the five key executive functions and it shows in their behavior.

By definition, children with autism:

have difficulty with back-and-forth interactions with other people – difficulties with social back-and-forth is likely related to problems with regulating their attention. With attention scattered all over the place, it’s hard to figure out facial expressions. Problems with interacting are also related to inconsistent self-monitoring (“what’s going on here?”,  “what do I need to do?”) as well as poor working memory (“what was that?”) and cognitive flexibility (“I need to change what I’m doing”. We certainly found that in the research on spark* – after 10 short session with spark*, children’s ability to make sense of facial expressions improved significantly. Remember, they’d focused only on conscious, deliberate control of their bodies and not on social skills.

become over-focused on specific thoughts and ideas – this over-focus (‘laser focus’) seems to be a combination of difficulty with inhibitory control (“I can’t stop myself from doing what I’m doing”), self-monitoring (“I’m not aware that I keep thinking about the same things”), and cognitive flexibility (“I’m stuck!”). 

prefer to stick to the same way of doing things – if planning and organizing are problems for you, isn’t it easier to stick to the same old ways of doing things? When you can’t focus (inhibit) your attention and you’re pulled in too many directions (like the photo to the right), doesn’t it feel better to stick with ways you know? These are all self-regulation issues. 

do the same actions or use the same words and phrases over and over – Repetitive behaviors, like hand flapping or talking about the same topic, are likely related to problems with inhibitory control (“I can’t stop myself”) and self-monitoring (“what do you mean I do this all the time?”). It also points to problems with cognitive flexibility – “I can’t shift to other thoughts or actions”.

Other behaviors, such as unusual eating habits, disrupted sleep patterns, self-harm, and extreme temper tantrums are probably related to difficulties with self-regulation. 

Difficulty with self-regulation might not explain all characteristics and behaviors of children with autism but it is a pretty compelling model. Our experience has shown that work on executive functions has far-reaching impacts on all of these features. If you work with children to improve their inhibitory control, you’ll see benefits in other executive functions. If you work on behavioral self-regulation, you’ll see pay-offs in others areas.


Photo by Waranont Wichittranont on Unsplash

Leave a Reply