Updated: Nov 21
Autism and Behavior—What is Self-Regulation?
Sometimes it seems as if new terminology is coming out all the time, and it’s all designed to make us feel unprepared to take on new methodologies. But when the term “regulation” came out, it was an ah-ha moment. Ah-ha, as in: Oh! There’s a name for that?! It is a concept that makes perfect sense, one that applies to all human beings. And for people with autism, regulation and dysregulation are crucial to navigating the world without distress.
The first word to learn is “regulation.” Being emotionally regulated means being able to deal with big emotions. We emotionally regulate ourselves by using soothing repetitive mannerisms, timely strategies, and internal monitoring. But when the opposite, dysregulation, occurs, all of our strategies have failed. Our stress takes over, we don’t think clearly, we can’t seem to communicate, and everything we do feels like an epic disaster. We can become dysregulated by unforeseen events, by being overtired, hungry, or overstimulated by the world around us.
We all use emotional regulation. Sometimes we use food or beverages to regulate ourselves. We take a nap. We bite our nails or chew gum. We twirl our hair. We shake our foot. We may use a phone app to keep track of our schedule. Or we may use self-talk, silently reminding ourselves that we have done this tough thing before, and that it will be over soon.
When children become dysregulated, they can become overexcited and hyper, or they can crash into fatigue and a sense of helplessness. Too much input into their nervous system can overload them and they meltdown. They may be doing no self-talk when stressful events are occurring. They may not have strategies, like chewing gum or having some coffee, to help them get to a good emotional state. Or they may be using strategies that others don’t understand, like self-stim behaviors. They may be flapping their hands to calm or regulate themselves, but then well-intentioned but misinformed adults tell them to stop because it looks strange.
How can you help yourself or your child become regulated? The first step is to become aware of how you--or they--are feeling. This sounds easy, but it really isn’t, especially for some autistic individuals who struggle with identifying their feelings. One thing that can help is a scale, like the Five Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron, or the Wave Watch Scale in How to Surf the Waves, by Tracey DeMaria (to be published January 2023). These scales show a set of images, colors, or numbers that represent intensity of emotions. Rather than forcing a child to select an abstract emotion word to describe their feelings, they use a scale that shows that emotional state in relation to other emotional states. The comparison can make it easier for some children.
Once you or your child become proficient at identifying whether you are calm, a little stressed, starting to become upset, or in the middle of a meltdown, you can figure out the best time to start using your regulation tools. Suppose you are sitting in a meeting and your eyelids start to droop. That’s when you know you need to stand up and walk for a bit, or get a cold drink. Suppose the battery on your child’s tablet dies, and you can see them starting to breathe rapidly and rock back and forth. That’s when you may need to help them by putting on a calming song, giving them deep pressure massage, or even helping them plug in the tablet and use a timer to count down the minutes it will take to recharge. Afterwards, you can check in with the scale and see if the tools are helping.
The key is to start support before emotions get out of hand. If you wait too long, it gets much harder to head off tough times. It’s really pretty simple. Think of it in terms of the following steps:
1. Pay attention to your or your child’s feelings and behavior.
2. Identify when things are starting to get stressful.
3. Try or offer some tools that have helped in the past.
Awareness is always the first step. Know yourself or your child, and figure out the things that are calming, then use them. Think of yourself like a radio station. Turn the knob too far to the right and you get static. Turn it too far to the left and you also get static. You want to get it just right, so the music station is clear and crisp. Regulation is like this—trying things until you figure it out. So don’t wait—regulate!
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