Zones of Regulation

Autism treatment can sometimes feel like the “try everything” approach. And believe me, in our short time on the spectrum we have tried A LOT! Daycare (for socialization), essential oils (for calming and sleep), clean eating (for behaviors), and the list goes on and on. The amazing thing about committing to ABA therapy is the “team” that you inherit in doing so. Our roster is deep. And even though the players change from time to time, we always feel the comfort of the team standing beside us. It also helps to ease that “try everything” mentality. Because for right now, in this moment, ABA is the method that we are committed to. And there are so many wonderful behavior-change techniques that we incorporate into our methods, and they are all a part of the same treatment plan. It feels a little less like a drunken game of darts, and a little more like a calculated game of chess. Just call me Bobby Fisher.

Part of our treatment is a learning system known as Zones of Regulation. I’ll refer to it here as “zones” because that is how we refer to it around our house and with our treatment team. Zones is not a therapy; rather an integrated system developed to help children learn and explore their own ability to control and regulate their emotional responses. The implementation occurs through a few different phases; which are dependent on the age of the child. Grayson started with this treatment around March of this year, just before his 4th birthday. At four years old the treatment requires a pretty slow integration. In its entirety Zones is intended to help people first discover their emotions (truly understand what it means to be happy, sad, angry, scared, excited, etc.) The initial goal is she him demonstrate an understanding of what the emotions look like. In our experience Grayson learned to demonstrate his understanding through facial/emotion recognition using picture cards or by identifying or imitating the emotions of people he sees in person or on TV.  Our team incorporated feeling and emotion cards into his treatment time. And slowly overtime Grayson began to correctly identify the emotions of himself and other people.

The next step of the treatment was to begin to associate the emotions with colors (each color is a zone). Blue Zone includes: sad, sick, tired, bored and moving slowly. Green Zone includes: happy, calm, feeling okay, focused, ready to learn. Yellow Zone includes: frustrated, worried, wiggly/silly, excited, loss of some control. And the Red Zone includes: mad/angry, terrified, yelling/hitting, elated and out of control. For the most part, Grayson relates the colors to the feelings/emotions that are the simplest to understand. In our house, Blue is sad, Green Is happy, Yellow is wiggly and Red is mad. We are still working to evolve his understanding of the zones and the colors to include all of the emotions; even the ones that are harder to explain and identify.

Once Grayson more fully understands the zones in their entirety, then we will begin the next phase of the treatment; regulation. Anyone who has parented a four-year-old knows that regulation is no easy task. There is so much running through their heads in any given moment. And there is so much temptation. So the trick to this therapy is to use the zones to regulate and control the temptations. I am excited to see what comes next. Because I am impatient and excited (I am in the yellow zone) I cheated and read ahead. So I know that lies ahead for us and I cannot wait. We will work on building Grayson’s toolkits for moving from zone to zone. We will teach him to recognize what zone he is in. And, if appropriate how to help move himself into a more appropriate zone. Both the red zone and the blue zone come with their own coping box or toolkit. This will be a “kit” of things that help Grayson find his green zone. The yellow zone is usually a sign that Grayson has some extra energy to expel. So the best “fix” for the yellow zone it to introduce a sensory activity or some way for him to get a physical burst of energy out of his system so that he can refocus and settle into the green zone.

Another big part of the zones treatment is a deeper understanding of triggers. First we will learn to identify and avoid triggers (SO MUCH EASIER SAID THAN DONE). This is something we already spend a lot of time, but at Grayson’s age the triggers change a lot and they are often difficult to control. The real breakthrough in the zones treatment will be when Grayson learns to recognizes and avoid his own triggers. And the realist in me knows that we are probably years from this breakthrough. But the optimist in me feels better just knowing that it is ahead.

As I write this I realize just how much I have learned about the zones therapy over the past six months. I have a tendency to go “all in” when we introduce a new treatment. I want to know everything about it. So, I ask a million super annoying questions to our case manager. I research (read: Google) everything I have access to. I talk to other people who have experienced the same thing. In our world information is power. And the more I know the more powerful I feel to fight through some of Grayson’s symptoms.

In our lifetime as parents I am sure that we will try a million different techniques and strategies. And sometimes we will knock it out of the park and sometimes we will fall flat on our faces. And I do not think there is a parent out there who does not expect the parenting journey to go that way. The truth is, we leave the hospital with these precious little kiddos after birth without a map. We leave with a hope, a wish, a prayer and a whole lot of love. And somehow armed with only those things we navigate all of the ups and downs. We do our best. We try anything and everything we can to give our kids the best possible life. And somehow, no matter what, it is enough. Doing everything you can is enough. It has to be.

JS

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