Author Archives: mslyons

Zones of Regulation

Learning to identify how we are feeling is tough for everyone. I hope to master it one day myself! It is especially tough for many people with autism to learn. I was reading an article not long ago, where the writer (who was autistic) described how other people’s emotions seemed to rise up out of nowhere, and they (the writer) often didn’t know what triggered them, or even pick up on the fact that someone was getting upset or angry until it had reached a critical point.
 
For my daughter, Sophie, identifying other people’s emotions can be hard, but she really struggles with regulating her own feelings. She has ‘big’ emotions – she can be ecstatically, over-the-top joyful, or in the depths of despair and misery within minutes. She finds it hard to cope when things go wrong, or life doesn’t go as expected for her. She is very conscious of this, especially as she is getting older. A tearful tantrum in Junior Infants – nothing too unusual about that, but sobbing and running out of the room in 2nd class – not so usual.
 
The best way I have found of helping her to take charge of her own emotions is the Zones of Regulation. This is a programme for emotional literacy created by Leah M. Kuypers.
“The Zones is a systematic, cognitive behavioural approach used to teach self-regulation by categorizing all the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete coloured zones. The Zones framework provides strategies to teach students to become more aware of and independent in controlling their emotions and impulses, manage their sensory needs, and improve their ability to problem solve conflicts.”
 
It explicitly teaches the child to identify how they (or indeed someone else) is feeling at a given time, or in a given scenario. It divides our emotions into different colours. It also helps the child to create their own ‘toolbox’ of tactics to help them to shift mood from one zone/feeling to another one. These tools are individualised to the child. The child can be encouraged and guided to ‘use their tools’ when they are feeling angry or upset or too giddy and dysregulated, to bring themselves back to the green zone and feel ‘just right’. It takes lots of reminders at first, and lots of debriefing after meltdowns or upset, but it works.
 
Zones gives the child the language to talk about their feelings, paired with strong visuals (for our visual learners). We have found it has made a huge difference for Sophie. She feels more in control of her feelings and less of a slave to her impulses.
She can say to us that “I think I’m in yellow” and we know what she means. For Sophie, yellow zone feeling might be feeling anxious or giddy, or feeling overwhelmed sensory-wise. It helps us understand how she is feeling.
 
Sometimes, she needs us to remind her to ‘check her tools’ and will look at the visual we have printed and stuck up around our house, but more and more frequently, she is taking charge herself, and will say things like “I feel like I’m in blue. Can I have a squeeze to help feel better?”
 
Zones also covers topics such as ‘Size of the Problem’ which we are working on at home with Sophie at the moment. It helps her to put events in context and to learn what problems warrant a big reaction, and what is just a little ‘blip’ in her day. We’re getting there, but slowly!
 
Zones of Regulation isn’t a perfect solution to solve all life’s problems. Far from it! Self-regulation is something everyone continually works on whether they are autistic or not. We all encounter trying circumstances that test our limits from time to time. If we are able to recognise when we are becoming less regulated, we are able to do something about it to manage our feelings and get ourselves to a healthier place.
 
The actual book is a fantastic resource, and can be bought from https://www.otb.ie/shop/zones-of-regulation/ . However, it is expensive. There are lots of free resources online, and lots of excellent information on the official website: https://www.zonesofregulation.com/index.html
 
If you think Zones might be worth trying out for your child or student, I would suggest downloading one or both of the Zones of Regulation apps for tablets. They are game based and teach the child about the different zones and allow the child to work through lots of different scenarios. I really recommend them! They are called ‘Zones of Regulation’ and ‘Zones of Regulation – Exploring Emotions’.
 
Let me know if you try the Zones out, and how you get on! 😀

Autism and the Behaviour Iceberg

Have you heard of the Iceberg metaphor to describe behaviour issues in children with Autism?
 
It was first used by Eric Schopler in 1995, when he was working in the area of Autism educational research at the University of North Carolina. The university is one of the top places in the world for autism research and have devised many of the systems and programmes that I use in my teaching to help my ASD students.
 
The basic premise of the Iceberg metaphor is that the things we see “above the water”, for example meltdowns, tantrums, violent behaviour are just the tip of the iceberg.
There is so much more going on with someone with autism than what is immediately seen.
 
Below the waterline are all the issues and stresses that are not apparent straight away. These could include anxiety, issues with understanding what is expected of them, lack of understanding of social norms and rules, feeling different from their peers, sensory sensitivities, and a buildup of little annoyances. The list could go on and on, and will be different for each person.
 
Keeping all this in mind can help us all to be more understanding and patient. I’m a big believer in the idea that all behaviour is communication. If we ate seeing challenging behaviours “above the water”, the onus is on us to look deeper, and try to figure out what is going on “below the waterline”. Some of these issues we will be able to help with, others may be harder to deal with or may not have a solution.
 
Either way, I think understanding is half the battle sometimes.
 

Emotional Literacy, Regulation and ASD – A Parent’s Perspective

Emotional regulation, or the ability to manage our feelings, is a crucial skill we generally develop as children that allows us to negotiate the world around us and build relationships with others.
 
This is not always easy! It takes lots of time, practice and modelling by adults for this skill to be learned, and even longer to master. I hope I might get there one day myself! 🙈
 
Add a diagnosis of autism into the equation, and it becomes an even harder skill to master. Studies have found that “autistic children have more trouble controlling their emotions than their typical peers do.”
 
When an autism diagnosis is made, one of the criteria for diagnosis is that there is an impairment of social communication skills, and this contributes hugely to the difficulties many autistic people face with managing their emotions. If you can’t interpret how another person is feeling, or label your own emotions, social interactions can easily go wrong. Actions can be misinterpreted and this can lead to lots of misunderstandings and upset, particularly when interacting with neurotypical peers.
 
This is something I am seeing more and more frequently with my own daughter, Sophie. She is hyper-social, if anything, and craves the company of other children. However, she finds it very challenging to keep up with the little social nuances of their interactions and games, especially if she is playing with other girls her age. She can’t understand how rapidly friendships can change from being ‘besties’ one day, to falling out the next, and back to being the best of pals the next day. This can cause Sophie to get very confused and upset, and has led to her shouting at the other girls or even lashing out physically on occasion.
 
It is as if it gives her emotional whiplash, and unfortunately it can have a really negative impact on her self-esteem. When she gets upset or angry in front of her peers, Sophie gets very down afterwards.
 
As a typical girl with autism, she wants nothing better than to blend in with everyone else and as she gets older, she is growing more and more self conscious and aware that her extreme emotional responses make her stand out from the other children her age. Shouting and stomping might not be unusual when children are of preschool age, but now that she is 8, Sophie knows that she needs to manage her feelings more appropriately.
 
We are working so hard to address this and to give Sophie the skills she needs to navigate the tricky world of female friendships, but it is very much an uphill battle. We have found some strategies that help us and I will share some of them in a later post.
 
From my own reading and research into this area it is clear that Sophie is not alone in her difficulties in this area.
“At every age, autistic girls score higher on measures of emotional reactivity than autistic boys do. They also score higher on measures of depressed mood, with the gender gap widening among girls older than 13 years.”
As someone who has had their own struggles with anxiety and low mood over the years, I am so conscious of the need to protect Sophie’s mental health, especially as she grows into a teenager. It is every bit as important as preserving her physical health.
 
We try our best to foster a culture of identifying and speaking about how we are feeling in our household. We are also working with Sophie to identify tools to help her when she is feeling sad, anxious or frustrated. Some days this helps. Other days, it doesn’t, and we all end the day feeling battered and bruised emotionally.
 
The main message we are trying to impart to our daughter is that all feelings are valid, all feelings are allowed. You don’t have to feel happy all the time. However, it is not acceptable to lash out when you are feeling sad or angry and hurt others.
 
Hopefully, this will help Sophie as she matures and the world will become a bit easier for her to negotiate in time.
 

Star Star ASD – Who am I?

My name is Michelle Lyons-Doyle. I am a primary school teacher living and working in beautiful Co. Wicklow, Ireland.
 
I graduated in 2010 from Froebel College of Education and Trinity College Dublin. Since then, I have worked in a variety of educational roles and settings. While I have enjoyed each teaching role, my passion is for working with children with special educational needs.
 
Children with autism are especially close to my heart, as I have an 8 year old daughter, Sophie, who has a diagnosis of ASD and Sensory Processing Disorder.
 
I started Star Star ASD in 2020, as a place to share information, ideas and support for teachers, SNAs and families of people with autism.
Michelle
michelle@starstarasd.com