After exploring the underlying neurological processes involved in co-regulation and self-regulation, we’ve come to one of the most challenging aspects of this topic: supporting regulation. When it comes to providing somebody else with support, the devil is in the details because there is no one right way to go about it and self-doubt has a way of sneaking up on even those with the strongest sense of direction. Hence the challenge! There is so much information out there regarding support strategies. In fact, other posts and resources available here have discussed the value of using strategies like body engagers and teaching through VAKTivities. I wholeheartedly agree that having a variety of strategies and approaches can be extremely beneficial when providing regulation support.
For some individuals, the use of a body engager or other creative activity in and of itself may be enough to support ongoing regulation. But for those with heightened sensory movement differences, organizing the body first so they can use such strategies and engage in an experience may take precedence, and it’s for those complex bodies and their support people that I write this post. So I offer the following as simply a series of suggestions in the hopes that regardless of what your support looks like, practicing a mindful and compassionate thought process may become the constant that you can rely upon. These are strategies for the Communication and REGULATION Partner (CRP) to follow to help support your nonspeaking loved one or student.
- Take a deep breath and check your own feelings about what’s happening: Are you doubting yourself? Your student or child? Maybe you’re excited and hopeful? Maybe you’re feeling pressure to be successful or to have a breakthrough? Acknowledge the feeling, pause, breathe in and out. Feelings are transient and oftentimes represent our hopes and fears.
- Reframe how you perceive their actions: Rather than thinking “Here they go again” or “This is never going to happen,” think about the mind-body disconnect and that this person is not necessarily doing what they really want. Remember, they want your support and to be in control of their body. Your perception and interpretation of their body’s actions is key to moving forward.
- Be compassionate with yourself: When doubt creeps in or if you’re wondering if you have what it takes to keep up the support, remind yourself that you’re both in this together. It’s OK to stop, take a moment to step away and recoup, and not just for yourself. The pressure you’re feeling most likely goes both ways. (Don’t underestimate the complexity of such interactions and what might be going on for each person involved!)
- Find your own supports: Everyone’s journey is different, but you don’t have to walk it alone. Work with support providers who perceive autism through a sensory-movement lens and adhere to the presumption of competency. Look to others walking similar paths by reading blogs, searching websites for resources, and joining groups online or connecting in person. Seek out blogs and guidance from apraxic kids and adults who share their experience.
- Be purposeful. Remember, just you setting the intention to support someone so that they can gain better control of their body is meaningful. And even if you don’t necessarily achieve some end result that you had in mind, you’re achieving something incredible each and every time you reframe your own thoughts and practice compassion towards yourself and others.
- Agenda: What you are trying to accomplish? Have you been at it for a while? Maybe it’s time to stop and shift gears, take a movement break, or have a snack. Is what you are working on really meaningful? If not, maybe it’s a good time to do something else. Nobody’s perfect and you can even acknowledge this by saying out loud, “You know what? This is kind of boring…let’s try something else!” or “Maybe we can make this a little more fun!”
- Structure time and space: Be clear about how long you will be doing the activity (IF it is helpful, use a timer to help create a clear start/stop.) This isn’t necessarily because they don’t want to do the activity, but that they may worry about “keeping it together” and knowing how long they will have to remain regulated can be helpful. It takes time to build up stamina and it helps if you are clear about the line for success. In terms of space, take a look at the environment. Are there lots of enticing games or objects in the room? Maybe even in plain sight? Keeping surfaces and surroundings as clear and simple as possible is helpful for a neurological system working hard to navigate sensory information coming in from all directions.
SUPPORTING REGULATION AND ENGAGEMENT
Try one or more of these suggestions and evaluate how it is working.
- Coach right into an activity: Cue the movements that are needed (“Ok so you’re going to turn and walk right to the counter” or “Bring your eyes back to the board, look for that letter and go for it!”) Use your affect: high affect and speech that matches the pace of the body can be helpful. Alternatively, a calm affect and slower pacing or pausing can be helpful when dealing with anxiety.
- Give sensory motor input: This can help “ground” the body (i.e. balance board, heavy ball toss, wheelbarrow walk over a gym ball, or other sensory motor circuit.)
- Offer calming input: Don’t forget about activities that are calming such as deep pressure, proprioceptive input, and heavy work (e.g., press ups on a wall, firm massage.)
- Consider a body engager or other VAKTivity. Giving the body something purposeful to do can be regulating.
- Evaluate the placement of your activity: If moving from the sensory input to the activity is dysregulating, bring the activity closer to the person (i.e. doing a ball toss while standing on a balance board then have the next activity right next to him ready to go.)
- Create a continuous circuit between the activity and sensory input: ALTERNATE! Do as much of the activity as possible, then go back for some sensory input, then back to the activity and so on. In the beginning you may only get a few seconds of engagement at a time, but it’s a great start and stick with it! This kind of practice builds regulation and stamina.
- Remind yourself that sitting is not necessary for engagement. A person can still connect to an activity while moving for example, listening to you read while walking around.
- Engage the brain: this regulates the body, helps to build trust, and stamina. Spelling on the boards is a great way to engage BOTH the mind and body and can be done in between walking around too!
- REMEMBER: a body in motion of a person with sensory motor issues may never look “settled, calm, or ready,” so don’t necessarily wait for that!
- Use what they are naturally inclined or drawn to do. Engage with them in these experiences first and try to create an intentional back and forth within that experience.
- Start shifting from their experience towards the activity you’re hoping to teach or engage in. Incorporate your activity within their experience. Here are some scenarios that are both respectful to the nonspeaking person and help engage the body and regulate:
- Imagine your son or daughter is tossing a ball around and it’s time to sort some laundry and you want to engage the body more purposefully to help sort clothes. Use a small laundry basket to catch their ball, toss it back to them, catch it again. Use your affect, make it intentional! Get a back and forth going, then start walking towards the table where the laundry needs to be sorted. Interchange tossing them their ball with tossing them a piece of laundry. Encourage them to toss the clothing either to your basket or onto a specific pile on the table (can put your basket on the table too.) Alternate between the ball and pieces of laundry.
- What if your student or client is Lining items up while you are working on the motor practice to use a body engager? Intersperse handing them the next item they will need for the line with a body engager item – like adding a peg to a peg board (hand them a item to line up, then hand them a peg to put in the board.)
- How about when your son or daughter is Stacking things and while you are practicing spelling to communicate? You can be reading a lesson to them while they are stacking. Think about handing them a pencil to poke at a letter on the stencil board in between handing them an item to stack.
- If they wander, follow them back to what naturally engages them. You may be able to simply guide their body back to the activity and can say something like, “Let me help you bring your body back to the table.” If that’s too difficult, stay with what they are doing for a little bit. Go back to steps 1 & 2.
- Or maybe take pause and take a moment to think about what you are trying to teach. Is it meaningful? Is it necessary to practice this skill right now? What part of your activity can intersperse with theirs?
- At first, you don’t need to have them try to carry out every single step of a chore or activity. Doing one step is a great start!
- Change the environment. Sometimes leaving an area or changing the environment can be helpful when the body is stuck or dysregulated.
- Cultivate a partnership, not a power struggle. Seek input from your speller if he is fluent with you. What suggestions does he have? If your speller is not fluent, you should be especially mindful that you are not advancing your agenda over their desires and needs.
- Try a Loop Breaker: Loop breakers are different from a body engager. These can be used to create a disruption or shift focus to interrupt a motor loop (an action that some with sensory motor challenges can’t stop even when she wants to stop). Examples of loop breakers include: music, rhythmic clapping, singing, eating a snack, re-arranging items on a table, imitating an action, or using the element of surprise such as saying something or doing something unexpected. Be persistent – the reasons she is leaving, throwing things, yelling, uncontrollably laughing or even making physical contact with you are complicated and very often not necessarily intended. These actions may be reflexive or impulsive motor taking over. It’s unlikely that they simply just ‘don’t want to be doing this.’ It’s much more likely that there are multiple factors involved for example being overwhelmed by emotions or sensory-motor challenges.
- REMEMBER: It takes regulation to engage in even a short back and forth and for someone with a very heightened and sensitive system, they may need to build their regulation and stamina a few seconds at a time.
- TEACHING A MULTI-STEP MOTOR SEQUENCES– break down a task and isolate one key part to start. Coach the motor for that one step and gradually add on and teach additional steps.
- UNRELIABLE SPEAKERS – be prepared for the unreliable speaker who may be saying something that is automatic but more than likely thinking something entirely different. This is where reliable communication is extremely helpful to get clarity on the message. Knowing the real intention of an unreliable speaker helps being able to mentally override the content that you are hearing as you support them.
- KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR! You can always say, “Well that didn’t work! Let’s try this instead! ?
Providing regulation and purposeful motor support to somebody else is not only about the strategies being used, it’s about cultivating a partnership. And in the perfect world, such partnerships would be rooted in communication where collaboration and feedback regarding strategies and their meaningfulness could be discussed. This is the ultimate ideal because everybody deserves a voice and a say in the kind of help they receive.
“First, don’t take anything too seriously. We can be hilarious people; feel free to laugh! Not because we have a disability, because we have a sense of humor just like everyone else! Second, don’t take anything personally. Things happen. It’s not your fault. It may seem personal, but often it is our reaction to anxiety. We can’t live without the people who love us. We never want to upset you. You mean the world to us, truly. Third, remember to see our progress, even if things are still hard. While progress continues forever, we have already come so far. See the positives. You have to be easy on yourself. Everyone is doing their best”. –Mitchell Robins
Even young children should have a say in what’s working and not working for them. Although reliable communication is not always possible, those of us who are relied upon can still provide thoughtful and meaningful support grounded in a mindset of presuming competence. Thanks to those who are leading the way in this movement, we professionals and support partners continue to learn about these beautifully complex minds and bodies. So, in lieu of being able to have a conversation with someone about how they want to be supported or what they want to happen in their day to day life, read the words of other autistics and self-advocates, listen to what they have said, and remember mindfulness and compassion can be your constant in the midst of uncertainty.
Debbie Spengler, MS, S2C Practitioner
A special thanks to speller and advocate, Dillan Barmache and his mother, Tami, for their input and pulling me out of the weeds…more than once!
Nonspeaker and Family Resources