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7 Ways to Help Your Child Self-Regulate With Autism

January 24, 2024

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behaviour when in situations that may evoke stress, anxiety, anger, and frustration.

7 Ways to Help Your Child Self-Regulate With Autism

This includes being able to identify your feelings and channel them appropriately when presented with challenging circumstances.

These skills, which are developed over time, enable children to reflect on the consequences of their actions before adapting their behaviour to focus on their ultimate goal, even in unpredictable or uncertain times.

Supporting children as they develop emotional regulation skills in a range of contexts will provide them with a stronger foundation for academic and social success.

Many children, including those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), can find regulating their emotions and behaviour more difficult.

They may have a short temper, suffer from emotional outbursts and frequently react in an unreasonable manner.

“Autism is a developmental brain-based disorder which can result in a myriad of functional problems from severe to mild and chiefly characterized by impairment of socialization skills. The nature of the sensory processing/integration problems often associated with this disorder plays a major role in their inability to distinguish relevant from non-relevant events in their experiences and consequently leads them to get distracted and often times anxious,” David Cantor, Ph.D., MS, QEEG-D, BCN, FNAN, Licensed Psychologist and Founder of Mind & Motion Developmental Centers of Georgia.

However, with adult support, children can learn to manage their emotions, and as they become proficient users of different coping strategies, they will begin to self-regulate without prompting.

Here are seven ways to encourage the process:

1. Engage in Therapy

Children who are learning to self-regulate can benefit greatly from a wide range of therapies, from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to neurofeedback, often when carried out simultaneously. Charlotte Dwight, mum to Hannah, 12, who has been diagnosed with autism, revealed: “Other forms of therapy, such as speech and language, became more effective in combination with neurofeedback sessions. Hannah is calmer, able to think more clearly, and can take a breath before a situation overwhelms her. Meltdowns are rare, and where she often used to react aggressively to her sister, now she rarely does.

2. Establish Routines

“On a daily basis, those around the child can help relieve anxiety by helping the child keep a regular routine, carefully walking the child through any changes to that routine in advance, and by using timely prompts about what comes next,” says Peggy Hill, LCSW, QEEGD, BCN QMRP, Director, Windward Biofeedback Associates.

To help maintain focus, you can use encouraging phrases and offer immediate and specific praise for effort throughout the routine and mark completion with a favorite song or countdown. You can also reframe failures as opportunities for learning and growth and then make a plan for how to handle the next challenge.

3. Use an Emotions Chart

Using a visual aid, such as an emotions chart featuring ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ and ‘tired’ faces can help your child identify their feelings at any given time. Use these discussion opportunities to highlight appropriate reactions to specific situations. Acknowledge that regulating our emotions is hard, but there are strategies that can help.

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As the child starts to build confidence, gradually increase the number of emotions on the display. It is also useful to label emotions in a range of other contexts, such as when reading a picture book and pointing to a character to confirm: “Tom is smiling. He’s happy.”

4. Enjoy a Movement Break

Encourage and emphasize the importance of taking physical breaks throughout the day. It’s the ideal way for any child, with sensory needs or not, to reset and decompress. This could simply involve doing two minutes of jumping jacks, jogging on the spot, or dancing. Choose a movement they enjoy and enforce it at regular intervals. You should even join in!

5. Implement Breathing Techniques

“Gentle reminders to breathe from the diaphragm, with demonstration and prompting, can help a child through stressful times,” advises Peggy Hill, LCSW, QEEGD, BCN QMRP, Director, Windward Biofeedback Associates.

Facilitate this by encouraging your child to lie on their back with their favorite stuffed animal on their stomach. Ask them to breathe in and move the animal up, then breathe out to bring the stuffed animal back down.

6. Practice Mindfulness

Spend a few minutes everyday practicing mindfulness in a quiet space alongside your child. It could be in a comforting tent, on soft cushions, or outside in the garden. This could even be introduced into the bedtime routine before sleep. Explain that you are simply going to close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Support them in noticing their thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations— anything that is happening right now.

7. Model self-regulation

It is important to remember that when children are not yet able to regulate their emotions and are simply reacting in the moment, they will find it difficult to respond to logic or reason. Instead, remain calm, show empathy, help them become self-aware, and guide them through calming strategies.

Once mastered, they will be able to apply these skills during increasingly challenging situations.

5 of The Best Self-Regulation Support Products

1. Mente

This at-home neurofeedback device is clinically proven to help children with ASD self-regulate attention and mood. The 40-minute daily therapy sessions help to reduce stress and anxiety while improving focus and engagement at school.

This set, which includes three charts and emotion picture cards, builds emotional awareness and self-regulation skills by helping your child to identify and talk about their feelings.
From $99/month, www.mentetech.com

2. Let’s Talk About Emotions Set

The ideal book to encourage young children to both express their feelings and calm themselves down with the mantra: “One, two, three . . . I’m calm as can be. I’m taking care of me.”
$23.99, www.nationalautismresources.com

3. Calm-down Time by Elizabeth Verdick

Packed in a storage tin for ease of use when on the move, this colour-changing putty reduces stress while also building hand muscles during play.
$8.99, www.amazon.com

4. Emotions Putty in ‘Calm’

Roll, stretch, twist, and pull this color-changing putty to support sensory needs.
$7.99, www.funandfunction.com

5. Tiny Land White Teepee Tent

Made from 100% cotton, Tiny Land’s cosy tepee offers the perfect escape when children need to relax and unwind. Add your own calm music and soothing lighting for a fully immersive experience.
$69.99, www.tinylandus.com

This article was featured in Issue 101 – Balancing The Autism Journey

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