Co-Regulation And Autism: What Is It?

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What Is Co-Regulation?

Co-regulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modeling children need to “understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (Murray et al. 2015). We hear a lot about self-regulation, but often miss the important developmental stage of co-regulation. In fact, there is not a lot of information out there about co-regulation and autism. Co-regulation is something that we do with infants and very young children. Think of it as how we soothe children before they have the skills to soothe themselves. We use our voice, facial expressions and affect, along with hugging and intonation to help little ones regulation their emotions and body.

Co-Regulation Example

An example of co-regulation would be when a child is scared by something and the adult hugs the, rocks back and forth, and says “it’s okay” in a soothing quiet voice. The adult is helping the child calm down by engaging in co-regulation. These moments of co-regulation will lead to the child being able to regulate themselves on their own in the future. With autism, we often see co-regulation combined with gestalt language (children who process chunks of language rather than one word at a time). A great example of this is a former student who would say “it’s okay baby” to herself when she was stressed or dysregulated. She is taking the gestalt (“it’s okay baby) that she learned from co-regulating with her parent and applying it to calm herself down.

Supporting Co-Regulation In The Classroom

So, how can we support co-regulation in the classroom with autistic children? First, talk to the child’s parents. They know their child best and I’m positive they are already doing a lot of things to keep their child co-regulated. Give them a call and find out what they do to soothe their child. Be sure to ask if there are any phrases that are helpful. Then, you can use those same phrases and see if they help!

I’ve also learned a lot from amazing occupational therapists over the years. They are the next best place to start (after talking to parents). Many OT’s are trained in a variety of sensory strategies, so they can give you some additional suggestions and ideas.

the image shows visual supports such as "deep breaths", "I feel I need" and a visual check in support

Making The Shift To Self-Regulation

Once you are using co-regulation techniques, you can start build the bridge to self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions to successfully negotiate challenges. One of the best ways to promote self regulation for autistic children is through consistency. Specifically, consistently using co-regulation whenever possible, so that it is predictable. Then, start adding in a visual support showing a calming sequence that you can model for them. This sequence might be different for each child. For example, a visual sequence showing, “deep breaths”, “rub legs”, “squeeze hands”. Another idea is to use a tool for teaching deep breathing. This could be a visual support like “smell the flower, blow out the candle”, or a pinwheel toy.

Building in little routines like this can help you make the shift because eventually, you can show the visual support, point to each step, and the child will know what to do.

the image shows 2 visual calming sequences.  One says "deep breaths, squeeze hands, rub legs" and the other says "count to 10, push wall,squeeze ball"

Visuals Tools To Support Co-Regulation & Self-Regulation

There are many, many tools out there for self-regulation. I created my own with the specific needs of autistic children in mind. You can download the smaller free version here, or the more comprehensive paid version here. In the more comprehensive resource, you will find a visual calming sequence (one that is already made for you and one that can be individualized). The other tool that is included is an “I feel, I need” chart. This chart brings identifying emotions and self-regulation strategies down to a beginner level. They can learn 3 basic emotions to choose from (in pictures), and then you can attach pictures of different strategies that they can pick. This allows for choice in a predictable format! See picture below.

You’ve Got This!

Whether you are a parent or educator, it’s okay to back up and start implementing some co-regulation techniques with your child with autism. Once you see that the child is responding and is co-regulated, you can start working on some beginning self-regulation strategies. Go slow with all of this. It’s about connection and authentic, caring relationship vs. just teaching a skill. You’ve got this!

More Self-Regulation Information

Self Regulation And Emotions: 3 Easy Ways To Support Autistic Children

Self Regulation Of Emotions In Autism: 5 Ways To Help!

9 Fidget Toys For Self Regulation Of Emotions

5 Of The Best Sensory Children’s Books For Preschool

Self-Regulation Mini-Training On YouTube

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox.

a photo showing several visual supports for young children with autism

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