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!