Modern Emotion Regulation Supports for Neurodivergent Learners: Are you Keeping with the Times?

Modern Emotion Regulation Supports for Neurodivergent Learners: Are you Keeping with the Times?

I have been supporting neurodivergent clients for over 20 years. Being in the field of neurodiversity, I have seen a lot of growth. We have learned a lot that helps us to provide more meaningful supports to our loved ones and to our clients. Although we’ve made many gains, there are still a lot of supports out there that are rooted in outdated beliefs. We really need to keep pace with what the emerging research is saying, and most importantly, what neurodivergent voice and lived experience is telling us.

We are going to suggest six important shifts that every single person should ensure they are making in order to keep pace and provide compassionate and effective supports to neurodivergents.

Shift 1: Moving from being trauma blind to trauma informed. 

In the past, we really didn’t take a lot of time to consider the trauma experiences of neurodivergents. We might have been stuck in old definitions of trauma, really considering trauma through a traditional lense; ”What are the traditional causes of trauma?”, such as abuse and neglect. We are shifting towards a place of really understanding just how traumatizing many aspects of life can be for neurodivergents. Sensory trauma comes from living in a world that is so overwhelming and feels really unsafe from a sensory perspective. Whether it’s noises, sights, smells or whatever it is, that makes a person feel unsafe on a daily basis within their sensory world. That is the definition of trauma; chronically feeling unsafe. Sensory trauma is a real thing for many people. There could also be social trauma; that feeling of nobody really getting you or trying to fit in and not being able to figure it out. This can be very traumatizing for many people.

Really considering the person’s experience through a trauma lens is very important. If you are supporting neurodivergents, to be educated and trauma informed is a very important shift to be making.

Shift 2: Moving from a compliance driven model to a regulation driven model. 

There are a lot of people still stuck in the past, in these compliance driven models, and we need to shift now. We need to stop the compliance driven models. We know they are dangerous for many, many reasons. In our previous blog, we talked about the dangers of compliance training on the interceptive system and self-regulation. Those compliance-based models are continually conditioning a person to ignore what it is their body is telling them they need in order to please another person and get a reinforcer. That is so damaging. We know that it’s very dangerous for many reasons. So, where do we need to go?  We need to get away from compliance. We need to get to a place of focus on regulation and safety. Our number one job is to help a person feel safe and regulated in their bodies and in their environments. We need to focus on how to promote those feelings of comfort, safety, and regulation, and do so through a co-regulation model; not expecting a person to be able to identify and know exactly what it is they need to regulate.

Many learners might already know what they need, but some learners need a little bit of co-regulation from us. They need that loving, compassionate support that we can provide to help them to be regulated and feeling safe in their world.

Shift 3: Moving from sensory desensitization to a place of sensory safety. 

In the past, the outdated belief was that if we just give you more exposure to the sensory input, you’ll eventually get use to it, habituate to it, or be able to tolerate it. What we have learned from many different neurodivergents as well as research, is that this is not true. It is traumatic to be continually exposing someone to something that feels so unsafe to the nervous system. That can feel downright painful to a person, and it is not effective. So where do we need to go?  We need to get away from that repeated exposure to uncomfortable sensations and move towards a place of sensory safety. How can we help to adapt the environment to promote those feelings of safety? How can we provide supports that maximize that person’s feelings of sensory safety within their world?

Whether it’s providing noise-canceling headphones or dampening the lights, it’s so unique to each individual person. How can we get better at providing and promoting that sensory safety?

Shift 4: Moving from cognitive-based supports to interoception-based supports. 

This is especially true when we’re supporting mental health and self-regulation. We hear this from so many neurodivergents; that they’re seeking supports for mental health and self-regulation. Many people are providing these high-level, cognitive, rational-based programs when the person is really not ready for that. You have to clearly understand how you are feeling in order to be able to manage or regulate that feeling successfully. So we need to rewind.  Those cognitive-based approaches are way too high. We need to rewind and help a person start to begin to understand their own interoceptive experience. How is their body feeling? What do their body signals mean? Our body signals tend to be clues to our emotions. This is a highly individualized approach. How do we help each learner discover their own interoceptive sensations and help them to understand what those sensations mean for them? By providing them with that foundation to be able then to take the next step.

Now that I understand how I’m feeling, I can take that next step in managing and nurturing the way that I feel. We need to get more focused on interoception-based supports.

Shift 5: Moving from deficit focused to strength-based. 

In the past, we were really running in a deficit focused world. We were identifying all of the things a person was doing wrong, the skills that they were missing, and fixing everything that needed to be fixed. That was very damaging for a lot of reasons. It sent a lot of messages especially to my clients who were subjected to those deficit approaches. It became their identity because everyone was constantly telling them what they were doing wrong and trying to teach them to do better. Their identity became one of, “Everything I do is wrong. I can’t do anything right.” That’s a really horrible way to feel about yourself. We need to get better at shifting towards focusing on the strengths to explicitly help them identify all of the things they’re good at and all of the things they enjoy doing. How do we lead with the strengths and the interests? That’s where someone is going to be motivated to want to be with us, to want to learn at school.

When we’re focusing on all of the things they’re doing right and all of the things they’re good at, it sets them up for success and capitalizes on that success.

Shift 6: Moving from theory of mind to theory of own mind. 

This is something that I work on with my colleague and friend, Dr. Peter Vermeulen. The old outdated belief is theory of mind; really driving that instruction on thinking about other people. How am I making other people feel? How am I making other people think? We’re suggesting a major shift towards theory of own mind. That means helping a person to be able to understand their own feelings and thoughts first, helping their inner experience become more predictable can many times help the outer world become more predictable. One of my clients said, “I’m so busy trying to figure out how I’m feeling, I don’t have resources left to figure out how everyone else is feeling.” Think about it. How many programs and supports out there do we really have that focus on and emphasize that self-understanding, that focus on helping a person to discover and understand their body signals, their own emotions, their own strengths, and their own interests? We have very little in comparison to all of those social-based programs out there. Social-based instruction does have a time and a place if someone is requesting it; maybe a neurodivergent wants to learn a little bit more about the social world in order to make it predictable. However, in the grand scheme of things, we need to get away from that outdated belief of social theory of mind instruction.

We need to shift and emphasize theory of own mind and helping that person to develop their self-understanding. This is essential to social connection.

I hope these six shifts have been helpful. I’m continually asking myself, “Am I keeping pace?” I know I have a long way to grow. I hope our field continues to grow and I hope that everyone comes along with it and works on shifting so that we can provide the best supports possible. Until next time.

Love this topic and looking to learn more about interoception? Try these resources!