Tag Archives: self-regulation strategies with autism and sensory processing disorder

Want Better Self-Regulation in Young Children? Help Them Manage Aggression


You might think as a pediatric OTR, I would be writing a post about sensory-based treatment for self-regulation.  And I have in the past.  Not today.

But I have been an OTR for decades, and what I know about today’s children is that agitated and dysregulated kids often need help managing aggressive impulses and negative emotions first, in order for me to assess whether or not their behaviors have a sensory basis.

That’s right:  a young agitated child cannot be assumed to have sensory processing difficulties if they haven’t learned any self-management tools.  It is too easy to assign them a label, and I refuse to do that.  But I can and will use effective techniques to manage aggression before I jump in with all the bells and whistles from my sensory processing treatment bag.

What works for me?

I get a lot of mileage out of Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies.  Once I learned these simple techniques, I applied them to every situation in which a young child was oppositional, aggressive, defiant, or threatening/delivering a tantrum.   That could be every session!  Toddlers aren’t known for their easy-going ways.

His Patience Stretching, Fast Food Rule, and Time-Ins are my three-legged stool that supports my therapy sessions.  Read Use The Fast Food Rule For Better Attunement With Your Child and Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today!  Kids aren’t born with the ability to handle frustration and manage impulses.  Adults teach them how to deal with their feelings.  When they aren’t taught what to do when they are disappointed, when they want attention, or when they are angry, things can get pretty unpleasant.  The good news is that learning can begin around their first birthday.

Job number one should never be unclear to anyone, but as time has gone on, fewer and fewer parents seem to communicate it clearly:  physical violence from anyone isn’t acceptable at any time.

Are parents committing violence against their child?  No.  It is the child that is biting, hitting, or damaging items.   “We don’t hurt people or animals in this house” isn’t always communicated clearly to a child.  I never hear a parent say that they like being smacked across the face by their child, but they also seem to struggle to clearly communicate that this behavior is unacceptable.  Resorting to responding with violence is not helpful.  Teaching how to manage aggression can be done without spanking a child or even raising their voice.  Changing their tone of voice and rapidly putting the child out of arm’s reach will make it clear to their child that they have crossed a line.  But so many parents seem hesitant to set limits, and some seem to worry that being firm will harm their child or hurt their feelings.  This is coming from,  remember, the same child that just smacked them in the face or bit them.  By not reacting clearly, parents are in fact communicating that aggression toward others isn’t a problem.

I try hard to teach parents that it is kind and loving to teach children that they can have their feelings but they cannot express them with aggression.  There are limits in the wider world, and if they act this way with people that don’t love them, the consequences aren’t going to be good.  Learning to hear “no” from someone that loves you is a lot easier.

Young children need to learn the vocabulary of negative emotions like anger, disappointment, frustration and sadness.  They need to practice waiting and need to be spoken to in a way that makes it clear that they are understood but may not get their way all the time.  Negotiation and appreciation go hand in hand.  Dr. Karp’s techniques really work for me, and they aren’t difficult to learn or use.  I wish every parent would try even one and see how easy they can be incorporated into daily life with young children!


Self-Regulation in Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: Boost Skills By Creating Routines and Limits

Occupational therapists are routinely asked to help young children that have poor self-regulation or modulation skills.  What do difficulties regulating alertness and arousal look like in a very little person?  Big shifts in excitement/agitation over seemingly minor events, sleep that isn’t very deep or very long for their age, and difficulty switching between locations/activities.  Often these kids are edgy/easily agitated, but they can also be lethargic and difficult to energize as well.  Poor self-regulation includes both ends of the energy spectrum.  Parents are usually more frustrated with the edgy kids than the lethargic kids, and some children will start the day lethargic but end up too agitated to sleep at night.  Their parents struggle to get even one day a week without tantrums and arguments.  They will say to me “He just falls apart over nothing!”

Big issues like autism and sensory processing disorder will often make self-regulation a daily challenge.  Children with language delays can be so frustrated with communicating that they live “on the edge” every day.  And children who have medical issues like sleep apnea, digestive or respiratory problems, or those who live in physically or emotionally unstable homes often have difficulty with self-calming.  This post’s intent is not to explain the origins or the mechanisms of self-regulation issues (post a comment if you would like to hear more on those aspects!), but to share the value of daily routines and limits for these kids.

Daily routines can be general (breakfast is always followed by brushing teeth and getting dressed) or specific (after you get dressed, you will get a chance to watch your favorite YouTube video once, and then you get milk in the Paw Patrol cup.)  The reason that routines are so helpful is that children for whom communication and calmness are hard-won experiences can have an expectation of what will be happening to them next.  They may be too agitated or too distracted to listen to our words as we explain the day’s events.  Anticipating routines supports improved attention and communication skills.  It doesn’t take the place of better speech skills, it allows them to use the skills they cannot access when upset.  Knowing their daily routines gives them the reassurance of “what” and “why”  in a world that can be confusing.  Calmer and more confident children are able to pay attention, process thought and language, and respond more effectively.

Healthy routines are not burdens, and routines do not stifle a child’s mind or soul unless they are completely rigid.  Think of daily routines as a slightly flexible scaffold to support all the challenges of the day.  A positive routine allows enough calmness for reflective thinking and listening when those little frustrations or changes come along.

Setting limits is equally beneficial for children with modulation issues.  They don’t always  look happy to know that cookies are after a meal, not before, but knowing that there is structure to their existence helps very young children feel safer and actually more in control-of themselves!  The job of children throughout childhood is to test limits and gradually develop an internal set of behaviors and values.  Children need to know what is expected of them and they develop pride in their ability to behave according to their family’s values and goals.

Rigidity and harshness are not the same as limit setting.  Limits on aggression and destructiveness are especially helpful to develop control over impulses without shaming the child.  Being able to express a feeling without acting on that feeling is a big skill, but it gives permission to have those feelings without punishment.  Setting limits may result in consequences for actions but not for emotions.  I won’t be shamed for wanting that truck and not wanting to share mine, but I am not allowed to grab your truck and run away with it without a consequence.

In my professional experience, using routines and setting limits effectively has been at least as effective as all the neuro-sensory techniques I know to address modulation issues.  For the children that do not have developmental delays, they can be very effective on their own.  For the kids with autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, it super-charges every OT treatment I use.  Needing to know how to create healthy routines and set appropriate and effective limits led me to learn The Happiest Toddler on the Block techniques.  Now I teach these techniques to any parent that struggles with these issues, then sit back and watch the peacefulness start to spread in their home!