Guiding children with autism to learn co-regulation

Guiding children with autism to learn co-regulationIn my first SNJ post I gave a brief overview of Bright Futures School and how we use ‘guiding’ (derived from the autism intervention Relationship Development Intervention or RDI) to work on the difficulties at the heart of autism.

These difficulties include:

  • understanding other people; being able to use someone else’s point of view when deciding what to do about something;
  • being able to manage uncertainty and change; being able to think flexibly (and therefore adapt to the ongoing changes that are part of everyday life);
  • being able to understand and manage emotions.

All of these difficulties come about as a result of people with autism missing out on mastering the social communication milestones that lead to competence in these areas.

With guiding, we are using the interaction between the young person/student and the adult guide to give our children and young people another chance to master these milestones.  The activities we do are engaging and fun, but they are just the vehicle for our true goal of using our interactions to help them master missed milestones.

The ability to co-regulate is one of the earliest developmental milestones.  Co-regulation happens between two people when the action of person A is contingent on, but not controlled by the action of person B and vice versa.  It is a communicative dance.  Here are some examples:

In the clip below, the co-regulatory pattern for Mum and baby is ‘my turn/your turn’.  They take turns to share something with their voices and their facial expressions.  Neither one is in control of what the other is doing but each has to wait for the other to finish in order to add their contribution.  What and how they contribute depends on what their partner shares.  The baby is just 2 months old and is already able to take part in simple co-regulatory exchanges.

Below,  here are some slightly older toddlers giving it the co-regulatory bifters…..these guys are having so much fun with their co-regulatory turn-taking J  They are adding in prosody, gesture and body proximity as well as facial expression and what stands out for me in this clip is the sheer joy that this co-regulatory interaction brings to them (and to anyone else watching it). This emotional connection is part of what children with autism miss out on when they don’t master the milestone of co-regulation.

Now, let’s have a look at some clips where co-regulation is not occurring.  As we do so, let’s observe the impact of the lack of co-reg on the ‘feel’ of the interaction, the level of emotional connection, the opportunities for sharing experience, learning from each other and having fun.

In the first clip, I am working with Lucy, who had just joined our school in September 2015. I hold out my hands to invite Lucy to do ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses’ with me.  Although she knows the song and the actions, she isn’t able to co-regulate with me and falls down on ‘posies’ instead of ‘all fall down’.

In this second clip, I try to incorporate Lucy’s exclamations of ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ as well as her trotting across the room, into a co-regulatory pattern.  Again, Lucy is not able to co-regulate.

For co-regulation to be established, the interaction must be balanced, meaning that both individuals would exhibit competence in their roles and do equal amounts of the ‘work’.

In the clips with Lucy, I am doing all the ‘work’ of the interaction, there is very little emotional connection, there are no opportunities for sharing experience, we are not learning from each other and neither are we having fun.

This is because Lucy is not yet recognising co-regulatory patterns (my turn/your turn; ‘we-go together’) and she is not getting any emotional payback (fun, enjoyment, feelings of competence) from the interaction.  The vehicle to enable her to do this (the special ‘guided participation relationship’ that all typically developing children have with adults) has broken down when her autism got in the way.

Lucy is a delightful girl, bright as a button, and once we guides began to re-establish the guided participation relationship, it didn’t take her long to start stepping into her co-regulatory role.  Here is a brief glimpse of Lucy after 2 months of guiding at Bright Futures School.

Lucy’s initial co-regulatory role is to transfer the sugar to the big bowl and my co-reg role is to hold the big bowl.  Neither of us can achieve our joint objective (baking) without the other one doing their role.  Lucy does another co-regulatory action (unprompted) when she taps the bowl after I tap it to make sure all the sugar is out.  My narrating of the tapping acts as an invitation for her to tap.  For her next co-reg role, Lucy takes hold of the spoon I hold out and uses it to push the butter into the bowl.  Again here, my co-reg role is to hold the small bowl with the butter in and neither of us can achieve the objective without the other.  Then we each have a spoon which we use (co-reg role of ‘same thing, same time’) to ‘bash’ the butter and sugar.

In the baking clip, the ‘work’ of the interaction is more equally shared out, there is an emotional connection, there are opportunities for sharing experience (e.g. ‘Yay, we did it!’), Lucy is learning baking and our enjoyment is clear to see.  We also achieved our joint activity goal – baking of cakes.  Much more important is the social communication goal…….once the guide (in this case, me) has got the framework for the guided participation relationship in place, Lucy can step competently into her different co-reg roles and the communicative dance is rockin’ and a rollin’.

In my next post, I will look in more detail at the guided participation relationship (GPR).  The GPR is the vehicle for all the interpersonal engagement between adult and child that enables the child to master social communication milestones of cognitive flexibility (and consequent ability to adapt in the moment to ongoing change), emotional regulation, perspective-taking and ability to manage uncertainty and change.

Zoe Thompson
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