Lucas, an eight year old with autism, sat in his classroom gazing around, slouching onto his desk. The teacher just asked all the children to get out their math books. Lucas didn’t budge. I was there observing him to see where he needed help. I’m a speech-language therapist and what I saw in the classroom wasn’t related to the traditional areas of understanding and using language. I knew Lucas understood what the teacher was saying. What he didn’t know was when to pay attention, how to ignore irrelevant things, how to manage his body, etc. The scene really disturbed me. I knew that Lucas had many good qualities and abilities but he was in his own little world. He was missing important learning opportunities.
This was one of the many observations throughout my career that prompted me to develop spark*. I was motivated by the huge need I saw in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to learn how to manage and regulate their own bodies, thinking and emotions. It wasn’t just an issue of teaching them to calm themselves down.
The methods often used with children with ASD focus on telling them
what to do – “sit down”, “calm down”, “stop running”. I found that, as adults, many of these children had learned to just wait for someone to tell them what to do. Others acted out or avoided situations they found challenging. What a waste!
Too few children and adults with ASD know how to make reasonable choices and decisions for themselves. They’re not prepared for the real world. The caring adults around them tried to protect them from harm and distress but not to make decisions on their own.
At the present time, few adults with ASD live independently, are employed or have friends. That situation just has to change! We need to help children and adults with ASD and related conditions take more active and responsible roles in their own lives.
Self-regulation affects all areas of life
Self-regulation is a powerful skill that has an important impact on children throughout their lives. Children with stronger self-regulation skills:
- Are more successful in school
- Persist with things longer
- Cope better with bigger challenges
- Keep track of how they are doing and change their approach when needed
- Make friends more readily
- Learn to do things just for the challenge, out of interest or pleasure, NOT for rewards.
… self-regulatory skills equip students with more positive views towards their futures, empower them to manage their social behavior, and support the development of lifelong learning skills.”Peeters, et al. (2013)
Self-regulation takes time to develop
Babies learn that sucking their fingers, thumb, or ‘blankie’ can help them soothe themselves. This is beginning self-regulation. Self-regulation doesn’t occur over night. It starts early in life and continues into the adult years. You can see the changes over time in the picture above.
Through the preschool years, children develop more patience. They can handle longer delays in getting what they want. They also learn more about how to control their hands (and busy fingers). You’ll likely find fewer surprises in your grocery cart when you go shopping with your child. Children also learn how and when they should use a quieter voice. But they often forget.
Children not only learn to control their bodies but also to manage their thinking. This means paying attention to certain things while ignoring others. They also learn to keep ideas in their minds while checking their own progress. Children learn to become more flexible in their thinking. For example, they cope more easily with being told they can’t wear their favourite rain boots on a sunny day. This also marks improvements in dealing with frustration and disappointment.
Developing self-regulation takes time – more than 20 years for most people! Learning these skills takes support of parents and other adults in the child’s life. Start early in planting the seeds of self-regulation. Children can then go on to refine and build on these skills in the years to come.