For many people, self-regulation is something you never think about, or even hear about, until you have a child – and then it seems like you think about nothing else. At least that was my experience twenty-five years ago when my daughter was born with autism.
Although her autism went undiagnosed for many years, we were constantly aware of her inability to self-regulate. No matter where we were if she became over-stimulated, she would just meltdown and I’d have to tuck her up under my arm and carry her out, kicking and screaming – and that would be one more place I’d have to add to the list of places we weren’t welcome.
It never started out that way. The first time we went to the library she was awestruck. Such a beautiful expansive space with skylights and BOOKS!!!!!! Her very favorite things in the whole world. And it seemed like there were millions of them.
By the time we reached the children’s section she was trembling with so much anticipation, she could barely breathe. When we got to the oversized stuffed animals and pillows on the floor it was just too much for her. She exploded in a frenzy of joy, running around the room at top speed, deliriously happy, delighted to be in such a magical place.
Unable to slow down or quiet herself, our trips always ended in the same way; with her tucked up under my arm, to be delivered safely to a much less interesting place, possibly never to return.
Life is often hard, but for a young child with autism struggling to just make sense of this crazy world, it’s overwhelming.
Self-regulation allows you to be aware of and manage your energy states, your thoughts and emotions, and behaviors in ways that are appropriate for whatever environment you find yourself in. You just can’t jump up and down and scream with excitement in the children’s section of the library the same way you can outside on a playground.
Self-regulation lays the foundation for socialization and learning and helps us to deal with stress, but it’s not easy. You need to be able to filter sensory information, relate to other people, and maintain focus, all while having a sense of self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
I tried so hard to find different ways to help her. At the time it seemed like I read hundreds of books and experimented with almost as many different programs. All of them involved thinking about appropriate responses, so we practiced that together. It wasn’t so bad when we were at home in a quiet space. But then we’d go somewhere, and she’d get hungry or tired or there was a different kind of trigger, and all the things we learned went out the window and we were right back in the middle of a major meltdown.
That’s when I realized that a ‘top-down” approach just wasn’t going to work.
In simplest terms, the frontal lobes of the brain, up at the top, are responsible for logical thought, planning, and speech, and language. Often called the ‘rational’ part of the brain, this is the part that makes us uniquely human, helps us to learn new things and socialize with other people.
The lower part of the brain keeps us safe and helps us to survive. There’s no planning or speech and language in the ‘emotional’ part of the brain.
When our sensory system is overloaded, when we’re anxious or frightened – or perhaps something has startled us – the emotional part of the brain takes over. Our nervous system becomes energized to escape a threat and goes into what’s called fight or flight.
As the emotional brain takes control, the rational part of the brain goes ‘offline’ – so speech and language and rational thought aren’t readily available to you.
You only have access to the emotional brain, which is in distress, but since it can’t be reasoned with, any instructions that involve speech or language or rational thought are not going to work. Which is precisely why you can’t tell someone to “Just calm down” when they’re in fight or flight. Because they can’t.
When you’re stressed, scared, or overwhelmed in a fight or flight, a ‘top-down” approach that requires you to think and use the rational part of your brain doesn’t work. A ‘bottom-up approach’ to calm the emotional brain without using any speech or language is much more effective.
I learned a lot about the nervous system and the mind and body and worked hard to develop the program that changed her life and eventually became CalmConnect.
CalmConnect is a patented system comprised of short (2 – 5 minute) video sequences filled with dozens of different people, designed to quickly and effectively calm the nervous system and build a bridge to the social world.
The program uses audiovisual synchrony with repetition and patterns that are predictable and safe. All the music has a pronounced rhythmic element, or steady beat, supporting every movement.
CalmConnect is a streaming program that works well as a transitional tool to help regulate behavior, at less than the cost of an hour of therapy.
Here’s a link to a short excerpt from a recent mental health conference, introducing the program and showing what it looks like.
For more information: www.priohealth.com