Thinking Through Dysregulation


When a speller is becoming dysregulated, it’s important to remember the common thread that dysregulation holds for all of us. Because when it comes down to it, the causes of dysregulation are a common and familiar human experience. Each and every one of us has to get through our days. As we try to do this, we might encounter any number of situations that can cause us to feel various emotions ranging from worry, exhaustion, boredom, joy, and even relief, just to name a few. 

So what happens when dysregulation occurs? What happens inside our brains when we become overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed? Well, dysregulation is a physiological process, and so it helps to understand the parts of the brain that are involved: that is, the parts that are in control and not in control: 

Starting with the upper area of the brain circled in orange is the Cortical Area or “The Thinking Part of the Brain” this upper region is activated when we feel in control and regulated. This part of the brain is involved in planning and purposeful movement. When this part of the brain is active, we can regulate or shift our thinking and behavior. 

The area circled in blue is the Subcortical Area, otherwise known as the “Reptilian or Limbic Brain” This area is where our emotions reside. In this part of the brain, movements are NOT planned; no conscious thinking is happening here. This part of the brain is important for survival- when it is active, its job is to protect and get us out of situations that have triggered the nervous system’s defenses. 

It’s important to understand that when this part of the brain is activated, it takes over and is extremely difficult to override and get back into the cortical or thinking part of the brain. THIS IS ESPECIALLY true for someone unable to control their bodies and has challenges with receiving and filtering sensory information. We will see that the strategies for regulating all involve purposeful motor planning, which means someone with a sensory-movement difference will need support to access regulation strategies. So how might we do this?? 

Observe and Think! 

  • Any changes in the usual supports or routines
  • What are they trying to accomplish? 
  • What is their body doing? 
  • Are their movements purposeful or more automatic? 
  • Have they been at it for a while? Are they stuck? 
  • What is your intention? 
  • Is what you want to work on really meaningful? 

No matter how meaningful to the speller our intentions may be, we just want to remain mindful of the fact that we are going to be interrupting someone and intervening. So these questions are meant to help you construct and maintain a perspective that encompasses the fact that there are most likely multiple factors behind why someone is moving and doing what they are doing. 

It’s meant to help you narrow down the possible factors so that you can better understand what might be happening to someone, as well as to help keep your expectations in check when you do decide to engage with someone who is dysregulated. 


  • Take notice and observe 
  • What does the situation demand? 
  • Come up with an execution plan 

In the immediate situation, you have observable data in the form of things that are not working and the nature of the disruption your speller is going through. Stick close to what is immediate and accessible to you 

Check Yourself 

  • When we say we regulate – we are really co-regulating 
  • What are you bringing to the situation? 
  • How in charge and in control do you feel 
  • Examine your own thoughts 
  • Examine how your body is reacting 
  • Bring yourself back. 
  • Step back and observe. 

When we say we regulate, we really co-regulate. So we want to be mindful of what we bring to the situation, including our overall demeanor! ALL of us have an autonomic nervous system that is hard-wired to scan and assess the environment for cues of safety & danger – that includes other people. And so, we need to be aware that our own outward mannerisms – our facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures signal another person’s nervous system whether they are safe or not. We must be especially mindful of this when that other nervous system is already in fight/flight mode. 

Ask yourself:

  • How in control do you feel
  • What’s going on with your own thoughts?
  • Examine: How your body is reacting – are you on alert?
  • Is your heart racing?
  • Is your breathing heavy?
  • What is your tone of voice or volume

If needed, step back and take a beat, and just observe. If the person is safe, then it’s really ok to hold off whatever was on your agenda for now. 

Co-regulation is a fine dance between you and your speller. Just as you might expect, it is an iterative process that requires practice and refinement. It WILL get better with time, thoughtful reflection, and ideally, input from your speller.


Lakshmi Rao Sankar is a member of the Leadership Cadre at I-ASC. She leads practitioner training cohorts with I-ASC, writes and presents on core S2C foundations and techniques. Lakshmi is based in NYC and has a practise in Spelling to Communicate. Lakshmi provides spelling to communicate services to nonspeakers, as well as parent and CRP coaching.



Debbie Spengler, MS, S2C Practitioner and I-ASC Leadership Cadre from Southern California. She is attempting to transverse the wide landscape of relationships in her life one day at a time. She believes in the power of language & is always listening for ways to level up her support!





Posted By on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022 in Education,Motor,Nonspeakers,Research


  1. Aura Amaya says:

    Amazing!!! Reading through was like if you described my son exactly disregulation episodes so happy I read this so I know I’m not alone in my journey helping him

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