Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Regulating Yourself

After three days of being with his volunteer "buddy" at a church conference, Josh was done.  One of the staff working the conference came to find me in the main meeting area in the middle of the session with a look of quiet desperation.  

"Uh, are you Josh's mom?  He's really unhappy."

I race walked to the area where Josh was sitting. His beloved magnadoodle had been thrown to the floor, earbuds were still sort of sticking out of one ear.  Josh was viciously scratching his eczema on his neck with one hand and then periodically hitting his head with the other hand.  He was wailing loudly and huge, wet tears were plopping off of his face onto his already food-stained shirt.

"Ok, buddy.  Mama's here.  Let's go for a walk."

I thanked the volunteer, who was mighty glad to return responsibility for this hysterical child to me.  Josh and I walked hand in hand to the parking lot, tears still dripping off of his face, where the evening sun was just starting to be low and orange.  After we did a few laps around the vast parking lot Josh seemed to be doing better.  When I turned on some worship music on my phone Josh started doing his happy circles; spinning round and round, flapping his hands, first smiling then laughing.  

Why do autistic people walk in circles?  Josh doesn't do this but a lot of other autistic kids like to jump-- over and over again.  Why?  The  best explanation I've heard is that spinning and jumping are examples of repetitive motor behaviors. When a child is spinning or jumping he/she is activating the vestibular system. The child may seek vestibular stimulation as a means to elicit “feel good” sensations and/or also to positively affect his/her arousal.  In other words, many children with autism seek sensory information or experiences from the environment (due to feeling under-stimulated). They may also use spinning and jumping as a way of regulating themselves (i.e.: when they are stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed). Spinning and jumping can help one feel regulated and “grounded.”

Watching Josh turn to spinning to calm himself down made me realize that it might not be as bad or strange of an idea as one might think.  To come to think of it, I need regulation now and then and maybe spinning is not as bad of a choice as yelling at one's family members or eating a whole bag of Tostitos.  

We all have our ways of getting regulated or grounded, don't we?  Some methods are more socially "normal" than others but they all are a sign that our minds, emotions and bodies get out of whack and we are trying to find a way out.  Sadly, some of our choices don't actually bring the restorative centeredness that we really need.  Sometimes disregulation leads to more disregulation and we just spiral into a very unhappy place-- like Josh was doing when he was crying, scratching and hitting himself.  

But with a little help from someone that we love and trust, we can find a different way, a new way to get centered and calm.  In the quiet of the parking lot with the vast, golden San Luis Obispo hills in the background, it occurred to me that Josh's spinning was like an autistic prayer.  It was Josh expressing that he was needy and not right in his own mind, heart and body.  It was a way for Josh to open himself up to joy, peace and, I think, his Creator. 

Tonight, the fruit of Josh's spinning was a smile and a calmer body.  After a while, he took my hand and was clearly ready to walk back into the church.  

Are there times where you could use a little help with your self-regulation?  What does centering prayer look like for you when you are overwhelmed?  


  1. Thanks for this post, Susan. It reminds me to be more centered on God. Maybe I will try the walking around in circles action so that I'm not just mentally centering, but also physically centering myself. Could be a step towards better integration of being. -Wendy

    1. I think that the ancient fathers and mothers (or someone a long, long time ago) thought of praying while walking the labyrinth for this same reason. I find this to be a really cool spiritual discipline.