What is the Low Arousal Approach and How Can It Benefit My Family?
I recently participated in a UK study on using the Low Arousal Approach at home. Answering the research questions and talking about the positive impact that the low arousal approach has had on our family got me thinking about how we’ve adopted this practice and made it work for us. I also hope by writing about it answers some of the questions that so many families send to me on how this could work for them.
What is the Low Arousal Approach?
The Low Arousal approach emphasizes a range of behaviour management strategies that focus on the reduction of stress, fear and frustration and seeks to prevent aggression and crisis situations. The low arousal approach seeks to understand the role of the ‘situation’ by identifying triggers and using low intensity strategies and solutions to avoid punitive consequences for distressed individuals. In other words, parents and carers learn to spot the signs of escalating anxiety and stress and defuse and de-escalate before behaviours becomes problematic. It is not about control or assigning blame, but rather looking at behaviour through a different lens.
Low Arousal approach teaches us to understand our approach within the context of the psycho-physiological (or arousal) of the person we are supporting. The approach spells out the differences between and the need for proactive, active and reactive strategies. Furthermore, it teaches us to recognize the difference between a person who is calm, one that is escalating, one that is in crisis and one that is in post-crisis recovery.
This approach is anchored in relationship building, trust, respect and a philosophy of care. Without these four things, it is hard for a person to feel confident, secure and safe. It is also about understanding the neurology of autism which has some unique points that must be taken into account. It is difficult for a person to adapt, to be able to interpret their internal states and feelings, and effectively express wants and needs in every situation.
We also need to think about a person’s happiness and well-being. Are we creating a life that is fulfilling for our child with autism? Are there activities that support their interests and passions? Do they exercise to reduce anxiety? Is the physical and emotional environment conducive to their needs?
Reducing Anxiety Before Problematic Behavior Erupts
We have been fortunate so far that we’ve never had to use any physical skills training with our two adult children. We are able to use techniques such as:
- reducing demands
- stop talking
- provide space
- an escape plan
- quiet time
- employing exercise when anxiety levels are spiking
Teaching interoceptive awareness and calming strategies have helped to de-escalate situations that were heading towards problematic ones. My daughter, Julia, is becoming adept at recognizing the signs of increased anxiety and she has a plan how to reduce those feelings. She has come to the point of realizing that regular movement really helps her to feel better, especially with increased screen time as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When things do go wrong, it’s important to be able to self-reflect and understand the role you played. This is hard for parents to do because there is an emotional piece present with our children. We all want the best for our kids and when that doesn’t happen, we tend to blame ourselves. Low Arousal encourages looking at behavior through a different lens – figuring out the “why” rather than who is to blame.
Recently, we had a meltdown with Julia over my husband raising his voice to me. Yelling is an immediate stress trigger for Julia and we don’t raise our voices often. My husband’s sudden loud voice (Julia is very noise sensitive) caused her to start swearing, crying and break out in a head to toe rash. We could have so easily avoided this by removing ourselves from the room when our tempers were flaring, but we didn’t. I had us leave the room immediately and waited a few minutes to come back in by myself. Julia thinks if parents fight, they are getting a divorce so when she was calmer, I explained this wasn’t the case. I used a distraction technique which for Julia is looking at her favorite cat videos. I had to wait for the right time to do that, but I am adept through training at knowing when this point has been reached.
A Personalized Environment Rather than Prescribed
A personalized environment is easier to achieve at home that it is in a school or community setting. What I mean by this is the day moves to the rhythm of the person rather than the other way around. This does not mean chaos or anything goes, but it means following patterns of functioning that work for that person. For example, Julia likes to get up at 8 am and Marc at 9 am. Both have specialized diets but eat different foods within that diet. They like to eat downstairs and not with the family. Because my husband’s work as musician causes him to work odd hours, family meals have never been do-able for us so we don’t make that a goal. We structure our home life in a way that works for everyone, but in particular for Marc and Julia as it is easier for us to adapt to their needs. Some people may say we cater too much to the needs of our children, but our household is a harmonious one.
Respecting the neurology piece, I know that my children need a predictable environment so we’ve created that for them. They are surrounded by things that interest them that can be accessed independently, and we respect their choices. Over the years, we have also encouraged flexibility in the day so that we could introduce new things, prepare for the unexpected, and expand their interests and their world. We’ve been able to do this because at the core of their lives is stability, predictability and mutual respect.
I did have an agency help us with staffing for 10 months when we first transitioned out of school, and have to give up on them because Julia was constantly expected to adapt to the staff and the protocols of the agency. My children weren’t even allowed to travel in the same car together to the same place because the agency had a rule that a sibling could not be in the car with their staff member. Was that detrimental to my children? Yes, because they like to be together, converse a lot, and are also a support and calming presence for each other.
Change and Fluency through Training and Practice
It is important to take training from an experienced Low Arousal trainer in order to understand the underlying causes of challenging behaviour, autism neurology, and to recognize the subtle signs of a person who is calm, escalating, in crisis or post-recovery from an incident. It is through group discussion, practice, and posing questions that one builds these skills.
We tend to view behaviour through a judgemental lens. Parents have to abandon their assumptions about their child’s behaviour, such as:
- it is attention seeking
- trying to upset you
- a result of bad manners
- a demonstration that you are a bad parent and not in control
- the child must learn to behave
- behaviours must be stopped to protect the child
One of the hardest things for parents to do it change how they interact with their child. They may want to change their approach but fall back into ingrained habits, especially when stressed. Our children may also work towards getting a certain reaction which is predictable and comforting. My son has very specific sentences that he likes to hear in certain situations and will keep correcting me if I don’t revert back to those sentences.
Some families also have conflict around how to handle and react to a child’s challenging behaviour. Low Arousal stresses the importance of working as a team and having a consistent approach. This involves changing beliefs. Move away from aversive interventions such as scolding, reprimands, or punishment. Parents have to focus on their own responses and behaviour and be fluent in a collection of strategies that rapidly reduce aggression. Talking about incidents, also called debriefing, should happen shortly after an incident so that strong emotions are dealt with and not buried as they will eventually surface.
Low Arousal is a skill to improve throughout your lifetime
Because I took my training several years ago, I continue to read books and articles that support this approach and watch short webinars to keep me in the right mindset. I continue to tweak my skills and increase my knowledge. When I understand the why of what’s happening, I deal with things calmly and with clarity.
Parenting a child with autism is a job that lasts a lifetime. By building relationships, effective communication, and fostering mutual respect, your child will have a more positive relationship with you.
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