Sensory processing is one of the most important areas to understand, especially if you have a child on the autism spectrum. Imagine your child’s state of regulation as a seesaw. A balanced seesaw represents a regulated sensory system. If your child’s seesaw is balanced, this means that your child is in his optimal learning zone. A child who is in his optimal learning zone is ready to learn.
What often happens with kids on the spectrum, is that when something negative happens (it may not be negative to us, but it can feel negative to them because of their sensitive sensory systems, such as a loud noise), it completely tips their seesaw. Now, your child is dysregulated, not in his optimal learning zone, and not ready to learn. Is our goal in that moment to push him to work on language or learn new things? No.
Think of it this way. If your child is having a tantrum, and his seesaw is completely tipped, are you going to start working on teaching him new things? No! Our goal in that moment is to get the child back to a balanced state of regulation - bring his seesaw back to center.
If you try to work on language at a time when your child is dysregulated, he is not going to be ready to process language, and not going to be ready to learn.
I think most of us know that when a child is throwing a tantrum and crying that is not the time to work on language. So why would we try to work on language any other time when the child is dysregulated?
If your child is very dysregulated, moving around the room, making lots of noises, covering his ears, etc., then why do we still want (and expect) him to sit at the table and work on something structured?
Instead, your primary goal should be to get your child back to a balanced state of regulation, where he can attend, and where he can actually learn. If you don’t first bring the child into his optimal learning zone, any attempts to learn will not be effective.
So what can you do? Take the time to learn about the child’s regulatory state, and what you can do to help bring him into his optimal learning zone.
Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist and owner of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.