What a difference a little calmness makes to self-regulation

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We’ve talked about calm adults and how important it is to be calm around children, especially those with autism. But how about the children?

We know that anxiety is a huge issue for most people with autism. Around 80% experience mild to severe anxiety on a daily basis (1).
We simply can’t remove every source of anxiety and stress.

In fact, anxiety can sometimes be helpful. Being a little bit anxious can keep us on our toes and  alert to what’s going on. If there’s a total lack of stress, it’s easy to slip into boredom – not great for learning.

But too much anxiety pushes children with autism into distress. Distress can be caused by an unscheduled change, too much stimulation, anything unknown … all sort of things. Check out my adaptation of the Groden Stress Survey to see what things stress out your child with autism.

Our goal should be to expand the range of optimal stress. That’s the place where our children are alert and interested. They need effective strategies so to help them expand that region and regain it if they start heading into distress.
About the worst thing you could do is to tell a stressed child, “Just calm down”. That’s like adding fuel to a fire. It can make things worse.

We need to teach child how to be calm when they’re calm. First, our children with autism need to experience what calm feels like. Many of them have no idea what their bodies and brains feel like in a state of calm. That’s where we start – we have to help them understand what ‘calm’ is.

Using a simple technique like Turtle Breathing (slow mindful breathing) is powerful. You help them focus on the inflow and outflow of air through their nose or mouth. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. Think only of your breath. Let ideas that sneak into your brain float away and think only about the air coming in and out of your nose or mouth. Do that for just a few minutes to start. Help your child understand that this is what ‘calm’ feels like. Being calm helps your brain and body work better.

In spark* and spark*EL, we practice Turtle Breathing until children learn they can do it themselves (the Awareness of Ability phase of learning). Then we help them understand where and when it can be helpful (that’s the Awareness of Need phase of learning). After carefully establishing those things and practicing, we’re ready to take it on the road and into action in everyday life.


(1) Tariq, A. (2014). Asperger’s Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury: The role of Anxiety in Executive Function and Theory of Mind Deficits and Clinical Research Portfolio. University of Glasgow. Retrieved from http://theses.gla.ac.uk/5247/1/2014tariqdclinpsy.pdf

Why does spark* focus on awareness of ability?

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In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, we start everything by making sure each child is aware s/he has the ability to do what we’re asking. We want them to show themselves (and us) that they can do it.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the years: NEVER ASSUME. Never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out. I remember talking to a young child about using ‘gentle’ hands. He sat there and watched me demonstrate it with my hands and then with his. Then I asked him to show his hand how to do it – he looked surprised that he could do it on his own. He looked like he was saying, “Wow, you mean my hands can actually do that when I want them to?”

There was an interesting study (1) reported recently that looked at motor learning in children with autism. Children were taught to throw beanbags toward a target. Some children were taught to focus on the target (external focus) and some were taught to focus on how their arm and hand moved (internal focus). The children who were taught using internal focus remembered the skills longer and generalized them to other situations.

This study suggested that, if we just focused on prompting children to use ‘gentle hands’ or pointing at objects of interest without working on how it feels, our children will likely be less able to remember to use these skills. By first focusing on awareness of ability (“I can do it”), our children can learn the motor patterns more easily and can take pride in their abilities.


(1) Tse, A. (2017). Effects of attentional focus on motor learning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. Dec 1: 1362361317738393. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29241345

When is it SELF-regulation?

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Often adults end up playing too big a role in children’s self-regulation. They act as the children’s frontal lobes and unknowingly regulate him by prompting and staying close to him.

One study found that education assistants spend 86% of each day within three feet of their assigned students (1) – hardly helpful for developing self-regulation in children.

The ‘self’ part of self-regulation happens after children become aware that they can control their bodies, thinking and emotions, learns skills and strategies for doing that, and have opportunities to practice them. This means teaching children step by step and removing yourself so they can make their own decisions. That’s definitively easier said than done. It comes after careful teaching and practicing.

We believe strongly that you don’t ‘just throw children into water and hope they can swim’. We need to work on helping each child through four main steps:

  1. Ability – “I Can Do It” – children learn they’re able to use the strategies
  2. Need – “I Need To Do It Here and Here” – children are helped to figure out when and where they should use the strategies
  3. Resilience – “I Can Do It Even When …” – we need to help build their resilience so they can cope in challenging situations and still use their strategies
  4. Self-advocacy – “I Can Help Myself By …” –  we need to teach children to advocate for themselves so, if something becomes too challenging, they have ways help themselves (other than melting down).

By working on executive functions, we help bring each child’s knowledge and intentions into action. The child becomes a master of his own frontal lobes and executive functions.


(1) Giangreco, M. F., & Broer, S. M. (2005). Questionable Utilization of Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Schools: Are We Addressing Symptoms or Causes? Focus Autism Other Dev Disablilities, 20, 10–26.