The Low Arousal Approach at Home
Dr. Andrew McDonnell, creator and founder of Studio III UK , was recently at my home to meet my family. He commented that my home embodies the tenets of low arousal. It got me to thinking – what have we done to make it that way? How have we kept life on an even keel with two young adults with autism?
Since our children have been young, they’ve had established routines around mealtimes, bedtime, hygiene, getting dressed, weekday and weekend schedules. Weekends are more relaxed, but their daily living routines are still intact. Routines create predictability and lessen anxiety. They also encourage autonomy. For example, snack time is at 4 pm. At 3:55 pm, my daughter goes to the kitchen and prepares her own snack.
From an early age, we also fostered flexibility by adding the word “surprise” to the visual schedule. This helped the kids to understand that a surprise or something unexpected didn’t mean a bad thing; in fact, in could be fun. They are still flexible with schedules as adults.
Our routines have also changed as they kids have aged. Bedtime is now 10:30 pm. With no school anymore, waking up in the morning is a little bit later (and boy, are they happier without the morning rush). Schedules are created to fit their needs and what works best for their body clocks and down times.
If something in the routine is going to change, I tell the kids the night before if it’s something like having to get up earlier. If the change is bigger like going away on a holiday, we start talking about that a couple of weeks in advance. This length of notice can be anxiety provoking for some people; you have to know what works best for your child.
A Quiet Retreat
There are places to go in our home where one can sit quietly and be undisturbed. Our son, Marc, uses his bedroom for this purpose daily. He retreats to read aloud to himself or to meditate to music. Julia wears noise cancelling headphones when she needs complete silence. There are always opportunities to withdraw and regroup throughout the day.
A Predictable Environment
My husband and I also follow routines for ourselves so the kids know what we are doing and when. Marc enjoys looking at my day timer everyday to see what appointments I have. When I am travelling, I leave a detailed schedule of what will happen in my absence.
We don’t allow people to drop by unannounced for visits. If people are coming over, we let the kids know in advance who is coming and when. We keep our voices down and never fight in front of the kids. Once they are in bed, we keep the TV low or we do quiet activities like read or practice yoga.
Having an organized home can maintain a sense of calm. Knowing where things are or where they go after you’ve used them creates order and predictability. This also fosters independence because if you know where the item lives, it’s easy to find and put back. Our books, CD’s and videos are organized by topic/genre. Marc’s Thomas trains are all in one big basket in his room. All snacks are located in a central drawer in the kitchen. Hats and gloves are in an easy to reach drawer below the coats.
Why organize the books, DVD’s and CD’s? We allow our kids access to everything, but that could potentially be overwhelming if there wasn’t a system. Both kids think categorically, so arranging “like” items helps them to find what they’re interested in independently but also expands on the interest with related topics nearby.
Sleep issues are often a problem for those with ASD and our kids have been no exception. To encourage better sleep habits, we begin to lessen sensory input two hours before bedtime. There are no TV’s on past 8:30 pm. There is no screen time allowed in the bedroom, although there are some screen rituals before the final lights out. Marc watches a few scenes from one movie of his choice on his DVD player for a set time. He then puts the player away and turns out his lights. Julia has some iPad time but that has to be put away outside of her room before bed.
Bathtime starts two hours before lights out so that there is plenty of time to unwind and no one feels cheated out of doing things they like to do before bedtime.
Our home is also our children’s home and as parents, we’ve always believed that Marc and Julia should have a say in their own lives. We’ve offered them choices from the time they were little, respected their wishes, allowed them to say “no”, and gave them access to the things that are in our home. We’ve supported their interests and helped them expand them so that they don’t get bored or stuck. They participate in making their schedule so they can choose what works for them.
Regular exercise alleviates stress, lowers anxiety, and helps with sleep. We make sure our kids have regular exercise several times a week. Marc has an at-home yoga program which he is now able to practice on his own.
Teach calming strategies as well. Julia has deep breathing exercises and some calming tools like a Tangle Toy and Marc meditates with his eyes closed to classical music. We worked on these strategies from the time they were 4 years old.
When Upsets Occur
When there are tense moments or the kids feel upset, there are several strategies that we use. We speak slowly, softly and calmly but overall we try not to talk too much. We reduce household noise, increase personal space, and generally don’t touch when agitation is present. Most of the time, we can distract them by mentioning something they like. For Julia, it’s talking about our cat, Mr. Darcy.
We don’t argue with the kids in the heat of the moment. We also reduce requests or demands when stress levels are rising. I also try to pull back on demands if a transition is occurring. With the end of school, new staff in our home, and new routines going into place, the past 3 months have been about keeping stress levels as low as possible and reducing demands.
Learning about the Low Arousal Approach finally gave me a name and framework for what we’ve been practicing in our home for years.
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