What a difference a little calmness makes to self-regulation

spark* News

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

Storybooks that help behavioral self-regulation

spark* News

Here are some storybooks for helping children with self-regulating their bodies.

Hand movements (mainly for younger children)

Bowie, C. (2003). Busy Fingers. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge
Chapman, J. (2013). Hands Off My Honey! Wilton , CT: Tiger Tales.

Hoberman, M. (2003). Miss Mary Mack: A Hand-Clapping Rhyme. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Hoberman, M. (2000). The eensy-weensy spider. Boston, MA: Little Brown Young Readers

Martin, B. and Archambault, J. (1985). Here are my hands. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Perkins, A. (1960). Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. New York: Random House. Sister Susan,


Sister Thuc Nghiem, Thi Hop Nguyen & Dong Nguyen (2002). Each Breath a Smile. Berkeley, CA: Plum Blossom Books (1)

Example storybooks where the main character could benefit from Turtle Breathing Breathing

Bang, Molly (1999). When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry. New York: Scholastic.

Newman, Jeff (2006). Hippo! No, Rhino. NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Niland, D. (2005). Annie’s Chair. NY: Bloomsbury Juvenile.

Foot movement

Aliki (1990). My feet. New York: Harper and Row.

Blanchard, A. (1988). Sounds my feet make. New York: Random House Inc.

Voice regulation

Munsch, Robert (1985). Mortimer. Vancouver, BC: Annick Press.

Whole body movement

Agell, Charlotte (1994). Dancing feet. New York: Gulliver Books

Carle, E. (1999). From Head to Toe. New York: Harper Festival.

Carle, E. (2002). “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” said the sloth. New York: Philomel Books.

La Prise, Larry (1997). The hokey pokey. Nashville, TN: Simon and Schuster.

Newcome, Zita (1996). Toddlerobics. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Example storybooks about the need for self-regulation

**Ellis, S. (2008). The Queen’s Feet. Markham, ON: Red Deer Press. (2)

Falconer, I. (2000). Olivia. New York: Atheneum.

Shannon, D. (2000). No David. Markham, ON: Scholastic Canada. (3)

Steig, William (1998). Pete’s a pizza. New York: HarperCollins.

Wells, R. (2002). Max Cleans Up. New York: Puffin.

(1) This book has a bit of a Zen emphasis to it so check carefully to see if it’s appropriate.

** (2) I love this book because it presents the issue of very busy feet and comes to a very reasonable resolution (can let your feet loose for an hour a day)

(3) I’m not fond of this book because it uses a lot of negatives (No!) – be cautious about choosing which children might benefit from it.

Calm adults, calm children

spark* News

Children, especially those on the autism spectrum, are like emotional sponges; they absorb emotions and feelings of others around them. They may not understand these feelings or why they’re experiencing them. They’ll just feel on edge and agitated.

Stress can shut down your capacity to think. You then lose access to higher level thinking, creativity as well as normal cognitive capacities (1).

It’s critical that, before working on self-regulation, people around the child become calm and centered. Learning and practicing Turtle Breathing , a form of mindfulness, enables you help children you care about remain calm.

Mindfulness isn’t quite as simple as it seems. It takes discipline. You need to cultivate and practice it. Our minds focus on what we should have done and what we need to do. In order to capture our moments in awareness and sustain mindfulness, you have to put in some effort.

Mindfulness is on a continuum. We’re all mindful to some degree at times. We all have the capacity to be mindful but we need to practice in order to increase our ability to exist in the present moment. And not just while practicing, but throughout our daily lives.

Once you’ve experienced and practiced mindfulness, do a few minutes of focused breathing immediately before interacting with children. You’ll be surprised by how smoothly things can go. We worked with a group of university students who were implementing spark*. We noticed that their first sessions were chaotic. We then walked them through 10 minutes of mindful breathing before each session. The difference in the children as well as the adults was astounding. The grad students remarked about how well-behaved the children were. They were beginning to see how their state of calm impacted the children.

Remember, the calmer you are when practicing self-regulation or when just interacting with children, the more likely it’ll be positive and successful.

Take a few minutes to calm and center yourself. It’s important for both you and the children you care about.

Take a few moments to experience Turtle Breathing, described here as mindful breathing. Enjoy the relaxing break it gives and imagine how your child or children you work with could benefit from these feelings of calm and ease. 

(1) https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/371f6f44-45d6-451a-9468-3f7bea648874/Nagel_2009.pdf