The zones of emotional regulation

Recently, Seven News aired a story about a family with an autistic child, who received a letter in their letterbox from their neighbour complaining about noise. The “noise” they were complaining about was the screaming of their autistic child.

Noise sensitivity, emotional regulation and non-verbal communication are difficulties people with autism deal with every day. The noise that an autistic person makes is not usually a choice, but rather an involuntary instinctive response of fear or the inability to communicate and regulate their own emotions.

This story really resonated with me. It took me back to one afternoon when I was picking up Jayden from kindergarten and one of the other mothers approached me.

“Are you Jayden’s mum?”
To which I replied, “Yes I am”.
She then said, “I am so sorry that my son hit your child yesterday at kinder. But he just can’t handle how loud Jayden is. He is always screaming”.
I had no words to respond to her, all I could get out was “That’s ok….”

I remember driving home and crying, and Jayden repeatedly asking me, “Are you ok mummy?” I was upset that Jayden was viewed by his peers this way and that I didn’t have the courage to explain why he is so loud. I was upset that I didn’t explain that he is autistic. That we spend hours in therapies so he can learn to control his emotions without screaming and learn to communicate, even though his verbal communication at that time was limited. This is a day that I will never forget. But it is also a day that helped me grow as a mother and strengthened me to learn more about ‘the zones of emotional regulation’ to help Jayden cope in environments that he wasn’t necessarily comfortable in.

Emotional regulation is an area which we focused a lot on with Jayden over the last twelve months. This is where Jayden is taught how to recognise and regulate his own emotions through the use of zones or colours. For example, think of a traffic light – red, amber and green. Most people know that this means stop, slow down or go, because it has been taught to us. It’s the same principle as emotions for autistic people. They learn to recognise their emotions through these same colours.  The ‘red zone’ means angry; the ‘amber zone’ means excited and the ‘green zone’ means happy. The traffic light colours are the visual aid to help autistic people recognise their emotions so they can learn to regulate their behaviour.

The visual aid assists autistic people learn about different emotions because it’s not something that comes natural to them. It helps them to understand the emotion, why they feel that way, what it means to feel that way and how they can control and regulate their emotions (and when such emotional regulation is necessary vs when it’s ok to just feel the emotion).

This doesn’t mean that if they feel angry, they need to stop because it is associated with the red colour. However, it does mean they may need to try to find tools to help them pause and calm down. When Jayden was non-verbal as a younger child (and still sometimes now), he would grind his teeth and scream if he was angry or frustrated. Now through the use of a visual aid to show the red colour (with perhaps an angry face), we can teach Jayden that he is feeling angry and he needs to take some deep breaths or sit in a quiet corner rather than screaming.

Likewise, with the colour amber, this is the zone of frustration, worried, silly, or excited. It is common for Jayden to become over-excited and start jumping up and down. Or he might want to play the same game a hundred times, whilst other children become bored of the repetitive nature. So, through the use of a visual with the colour yellow (and maybe a visual of an excited face), we can teach Jayden that he might need to slow down or move onto the next activity, so that he can head back into the green zone.

The visual colour green (with a happy or calm face) is the zone we try to encourage, as this means ‘good to go’. It’s the zone that you work to get to when you are in a different colour zone.  It’s the zone of a happy, focused and calm child.

In addition to the traffic light colours, there is also a blue zone which represents a ‘slow day’, like when you feel sad, sick, tired, shy or bored. Again, this zone helps an autistic person understand how they are feeling and what things they can do to get them back to the green zone. This might be things like having cuddles, resting (if they are tired or sick) or trying to work out why they feel sad so they can improve the situation to feel happier.

It made me really sad to read the Seven News story, as it shows still how little people understand about autism and how words can be hurtful. Don’t get me wrong, people have the right to enjoy their own peace and quiet. But things aren’t always as simple as people think. Sometimes a meltdown is not a spoilt child screaming because he/she didn’t get what they wanted. Sometimes it is because that child does not understand how to recognise and control their own emotions because it’s not something that comes naturally. It needs to be taught over and over again until it becomes a learnt habit. And even then, it may not come naturally, but rather takes constant focus and effort to control.

So please, next time you hear a screaming child (or person for that matter), stop for a moment and open your mind. They may be facing struggles that you have no idea about. Try to show some compassion for that person, and for the people around them trying to comfort them. Try not to judge and assume that it’s a spoilt child or bad parenting. Try for a moment to picture yourself not being able to understand or control how you’re feeling, and then instantly feeling more scared, anxious or stressed because you don’t know how to regulate your own emotions. A little bit of compassion goes a long way in this world.

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