Episode #19: Regulation is Required for Curiosity to Thrive

Here, Synergy Autism Center's owner, Barbara Avila shares the essential nature of regulation for
curiosity and learning to thrive.
A child who is curious is learning, growing, and thriving. They are active and engaged in exploring
the world and trying to figure out how things and people around them work. They imitate.
They follow. They experiment. They fail and recover. They take risks and experience accidents.
They gaze to their caregivers to determine safety or confirm their curiosity. They engage with
the world. They are intrigued by the unexpected and the unpredictable within their developmental

Co-Regulation Leads to Regulation 
In order for a child to be curious, their internal state must be ready for new learning.
A newborn is not ready for a whole lot of stimulation without getting overwhelmed and
dysregulated, for example. However, as a child gets older, their system learns to be
slightly stressed and to re-regulate to accommodate the new information and learning.
This development happens first by borrowing the parent or caregivers’ regulation.
This is why we sing, rock, and coo with babies. We are helping them learn to regulate
their own systems by co-regulating. Something has stressed their little systems and we are
there to share our regulation and bring them back to homeostasis. 

Dysregulation Leads to Symptoms of Autism
What if, however, a child is not able to soothe through co-regulation or their system develops
in a unique manner that challenges their regulation later in development past the typical
rocking and singing together phase? That child may seek out patterns that are soothing
or objects that are within his/her control to gain that regulation. They may not seek out
their caregivers due to their social engagement being too overwhelming. They may retreat
to inanimate objects and patterns of sameness for safety, security, and soothing. 
Co-Regulation Throughout Our Lives
As humans, we seek connection with others. We find great pleasure when a new friend
shares common interests and when you find synchrony between you without much effort.
This feeling energizes us and deepens our understanding of ourselves as well as the other
person. Many of us engage in activities that recreate this feeling (e.g., tennis, golf, board
games, dancing). These are very dynamic in nature while they are still, at the root,
co-regulating shared experiences.

Reducing Stressors for Someone with Autism
First and foremost, for a child or person on the autism spectrum to regulate and be at
their best for optimal curiosity and learning, they need you to be predictable, quiet,
deliberate, and confident. They need you to help keep life manageable so natural learning
and growing can occur. This happens by ensuring a routine schedule for daily life,
especially bedtime routines and morning routines. It happens by reducing your clutter
both visually and the words you use (streamline to only the essential words). It means
allowing processing time for a person with autism to shift their attention from one thing
to another (or you). 

Ten Ways to Reduce Stressors so that Curiosity Can Thrive
Regardless of intervention strategies, curriculum, or parenting approach you are using,
here are my top ten tools for reducing stressors for someone with autism.

Regulate yourself first. Take deep breaths, count to 10, assess your own stress level.
Calm your own system so that you can calm someone else’s. It never works
to approach someone in a stressed or anxious state.

Partner with the person with autism. Offer partnerships for anything and everything
from opening a door together to opening a bag of food together. We feel more
successful when we can be helpful and involved with clear expectations. This also
provides opportunities for co-regulation.

Make it visual. Bring something from being all auditory into being also visual (
i.e., a point, a body positioning cue, a drawing, a photo).

Allow processing time. Most people with autism have auditory processing needs
and have trouble shifting quickly from one task or activity to another. Allowing time
to process a question or simply your silent presence can help immensely with reducing
anxiety and stress levels.

Declutter. Simply reducing the amount of visual clutter in your home or classroom can
significantly help lower stress levels (yours and your child’s). But don’t forget about
auditory clutter too. We all tend to talk too much. Reduce your words by saying
only the essentials. 

Respect sensory support and/or breaks. People with autism and attention deficits
often need to move to think. Some need to pace, others need to flap, others need to
chew on something. Respect that need and plan for it. Otherwise, that person will find
other ways of getting that need met and you may not be as satisfied with the outcome.

Provide boundaries. Just because your child or student has autism does not mean
that you allow challenging behaviors. Children/people with autism need boundaries to
feel safe and secure. They are stress-reducing when the guide holds to them with high
expectations while simplifying the environment and ensuring clarity.

Celebrate strengths. The incredible focus and/or detail-oriented mind does seem to
come with autism. Offer times of the day that topics of extreme interest are fully allowed
and celebrated. Just be sure to also balance these with social and/or decision-making
opportunities every day.

Use mindful communication. The communication you use can make a huge impact
on a person’s processing and stress level. Aim to engage your child’s mind rather than
having him/her mindless respond. Stating something like “it’s time to go” can elicit
more thinking on your child’s behalf about what is required to go rather than your cuing
them verbally through “get your shoes, put them on, get your coat, put it on, get your
backpack,” etc. Engaging someone’s mind in his own actions keeps them from fixating
on stress or anxiety.

Turn frustration into fascination. We all make mistakes. We all push people over their
edge of competency at times without realizing it. Take those moments as information
about the person’s stress level. Instead of avoiding that same situation, it is essential
to return to it with new fascination and your own curiosity about how to better support
them through that moment. As one client shared with me, she said when she experiences
a “red flag moment,” she reminds herself to “return to the flag.” Returning with more
success brings up everyone’s confidence levels.



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