Co-Regulation - The Bridge to Self-Regulation - Autism Awareness
Father holding daughter's hand developing co-regulation.

Co-Regulation – The Bridge to Self-Regulation

Co-regulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modeling that young children need to understand, express, and module their thoughts, feelings and behaviors (Murray et al 2015, 14). In order for an autistic child to be able to self-regulate, co-regulation has to occur. It is the bridge to self-regulation.

Kelly Mahler, OT, explains co-regulation in this simple way:

Co-regulation is what we’re all born requiring when we enter this world. We all require the assistance of someone in our world to step in and help us meet our body’s needs, to meet our regulation needs, whether it’s a nervous system regulation, or maybe it’s also to meet our survival needs, like offering us food and warmth, etc. That co-regulation process is what happens when our caregiver steps in and helps us meet our body’s needs, whether it’s for regulation or survival.

There is a continual back and forth process between caregivers and support personnel and an autistic person, which is what co-regulation is all about. This interaction is necessary to build an understanding of what is going on in the body, leading to interoceptive awareness. In order to self-regulate, a person has to understand what their body signals mean and then seek out what they need in certain moments for regulation and comfort. Individuals also need repeated experiences of co-regulation from a regulated adult before they can begin to self-regulate.

Self-regulation is the process of managing oneself. It is influenced by external factors in the environment along with internal factors. A person needs to manage both their physical and emotional needs. Examples of physical needs are hunger, thirst, toileting, and feeling tired. If a person is struggling to self-regulate, behaviors of concern may happen such as anxiety or meltdowns. It may be difficult to process emotions, sit still, and focus. When dysregulated, it’s often hard to participate in activities.

Adults may have to act as the external nervous systems for autistic individuals who are experiencing stress and anxiety. When adults co-regulate with individuals, they can demonstrate that they are safe and also that the adults are safe people to go to when stressed. When dysregulated people are met with support and empathy, they will be able to better regulate themselves over time.

What are some examples of co-regulation responses?

Spectrum Gaming in the UK lists examples of co-regulation responses from adults:

  • Be a warm and calming presence
  • Empathize with a young person
  • Model behaviors that can modulate arousal
  • Provide a structured environment that reduces uncertainty and provides feelings of safety.
  • Make changes to the environment, such as removing triggers and reducing sensory input when a young person is becoming stressed.

All of these points are cornerstones of the Low Arousal Approach.

How can we support co-regulation?

  1. Build a trusting relationship – Co-regulation happens with a trusted adult. A person needs to feel safe and respected. The relationship can’t be a compliance based one where a person is forced to submit or follow a demand in order to get a reward or reinforcer.
  2. Understand and regulate our own states – Whether you are a parent or in a supportive role, we have to practice self-care in order not to become overwhelmed or burnt out. Take breaks, exercise and do things to nurture and restore your own well-being.
  3. Use visuals to support co-regulation – Create individualized visuals to support a person’s needs. Add in “I feel” and “I need” to visuals to support pairing emotions with co-regulation and self-regulation needs. Here are some visual resources to help with the concept of co-regulation.
  4. Use daily tasks and routines to facilitate co-regulation – Tasks and routines can be great opportunities for social engagement. Household chores, cooking, pet care, gardening, and setting the table are great examples of how to share steps in a task. If you need more ideas on how to do this, have a look at the book Make Social and Emotional Learning Stick.
  5. Delve below the water line – All behavior is viewed through a judgmental lens, but the meaning we assign to behaviors we observe is often not correct. Try to understand the “why” of behavior that you see. Be curious and ask questions.
  6. Be proactive – Don’t wait until a person is overwhelmed before co-regulating; do it all the time to help a person feel regulated and safe.
  7. Simplify language, reduce demands in times of dysregulation – When dysregulated, it’s harder to access thinking skills. Reduce demands, use a calm voice, talk less (or not at all) and use visual supports when needed.

Keep in mind that reaching the point of self-regulation is a process – we don’t start there. We build that bridge to self-regulation through co-regulation and building interoceptive awareness. It takes time to understand body signals and how to respond to them in a way that makes one feel comfortable and safe. When supporting an autistic person, model good regulation and demonstrate calmness. Keep expectations realistic and offer co-regulation throughout the day.



Mahler, K. (April 2022) The Power of Co-Regulation.

Phillip, M. (December 7, 2022) Importance of Pacing, Co-regulatory Patterns, Anticipation.

SSM Health Treffert Center. (July 27, 2022) Co-regulation before Self-Regulation and Autism: 5 Ways to Help.

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