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I’m going to need to see inside that bag: Regulation Planning.

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Every person experiences dysregulation at one point or another. For some, certain diagnoses are associated with consistent regulation difficulty. However, if you’ve ever had children being loud and rambunctious while you’re trying to make a work call, or can’t find your plane tickets at the gate, or just learned of a tragedy or illness involving a loved one, you could experience dysregulation. Stress also creates dysregulation.


As an autistic person, I experience the world more intensely. I am taking in and processing more information than the average person, which is exhausting. It is like when you have too many programs open on you computer and the computer gets stuck. It can’t mange all of the tasks open with the ram memory available so you get the colorful spinning pinwheel of death forcing you to force quit or restart.


Self care is essentially keeping your self at a healthy level of regulation. If you’ve seen a therapist for burnout, depression, ptsd, or other conditions that require lowering demands, you’ve probably been told by a therapist to “just rest.” The two of the most frustrating words a therapist can say because most people do not have the luxury to reduce demands or take a break from their responsibilities to “just rest.” It feels self defeating to hear what would help but feels impossible. Self care gets thrown around a lot without much support toward identifying what is self care.


Self care is responding to a need with the proper intervention. If you have an infection, antibiotics. If you have a wound, a bandage. If you are hungry, eat. It’s not rocket science but our society encourages us to push through it and be productive. Don’t disrupt the work. Don’t have needs at inconvenient times. Don’t delay my needs with your needs.


Imagine…


You find yourself in a meeting, a store, or in class. Suddenly, you become aware of your body because your body begins to react to the stress you didn’t see coming and didn’t know was there until your body and brain communicated to unearth an urgent need. You become acutely aware of your surroundings and go into problem solving mode because survival instinct kicks in. What do you do when there is not a readily available remedy? Your body understands this unmet need and responds accordingly to further encourage you to act. It knows it must escalate the warning by quickening your pulse, perspiring, or hearing you up. The warning becomes a threat as you are confronted with a decision. Fight. Flight. Freeze. You could meltdown or shutdown. You might try to push through because the need can’t be met immediately or in this environment. You might ignore it or suffer silently all the while the distress is making new neural pathways to prevent the stress in the future. But this is ultimately counterproductive because you’ve recorded this pathway to respond to the need from a place of dysregulation. Your brain doesn’t sort out the nuances of this situation and can’t apply context to it. It just knows it should begin to worry when the feeling of overwhelm emerges. This leads to a repetitive cycle where new neural pathways are developed in defense. The function of your brain is not to discern the threat. It reads your bodies response and records it as a threat.


No matter who you are, you deserve to have your needs met. It is important to plan for your day with regulation in mind, especially if your capacity is low due to stress, events, or ongoing mental health challenges.


Most people I work with don’t know what they need to support their regulation. After identifying some recurring challenges and reviewing how to address the needs, I am always asking (mostly youth), what’s in your bag? So far, I’ve not ever seen a bag that prepared them to meet the day’s challenges.


We all have valid needs. Our personal responsibility is to learn to understand what we need and ensure we are able to meet the need when it arises. When you go swimming, you might pack a suit, towel, sun block, hat, or goggles. You have assessed the environment you are going into and appropriately planned for the known needs. It’s no different when you go to work or school or an outing with friends.


Preparing for your needs thoughtfully can reduce anxiety and increase your focus, attention, and sense of well being. Most people operate from a higher than is healthy level of stress. This is their baseline. The effect of prolonged stress is silent. It builds over time and can result in physical or mental health related illness.


I try to help people identify these needs and plan for them. If you don’t need what you packed, that’s wonderful but you don’t want to be caught with your pants down either. You want to have help when you need help. Sometimes just knowing you have a plan and available resources is enough to reduce anxiety and stress.


So, I’ll share what I have in my bag and how I use it.


Water- because I experience interoception, I tend to not know I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain until it is knocking urgently at the door.


Snack- see above.


Hard candy- sucking on hard candy has been helpful to me when I feel nauseous or uncomfortable. Perhaps Freud would argue that the oral sucking is a comforting substitute for being nursed as an infant. I do find that when I have hard candy in session, I observe people generally feel more relaxed as is evident by the loosening of posture.


As an autistic person, I can easily become over or under stimulated.


When I’m under-stimulated, I need to move. I typically carry a rubber racquet ball, kendama, hacky sack, juggling balls, or yo-yo with me for this purpose. Sometimes I have a few options if I anticipate it is going to be a lot of sitting or the setting is known to be sedating. I like to have interesting things to look at if I’m required to sit for long periods.


When I’m overstimulated, it’s usually a cue to slow things down, breathe, and check in with my body. I have a range of fidgets that I use to help me calm down. It’s important to identify what is and is not calming for you specifically. For me, I like to hold and manipulate hematite magnets (usually while pacing). The sound of the magnets clicking can be distracting or annoying to others. I find it relaxing in combination with the haptic feedback in my hand when the magnets collide. Sometimes I use four square magnets and roll them over the top of the others. It produces a satisfying but more subtle sound. You can even perform tricks with them which is fun, right? Who said you can’t have fun regulating?


Other fidgets like sliders or clicky button fidgets can mimic a rhythmic sound that you can match to your heart rate to bring awareness to and slow it down.


Less frequently I have soft sensory toys. It really depends but I find I don’t use them as much outside of home.


When I need to focus and think clearly, I find that a visual stim that spins or a gyroscope help me problem solve.


For meetings, I like to have colored pencils and coloring pages. I like to listen while I color. I have an insanely good memory so I don’t need to take notes and I am paying attention. It reduces the stress of eye contact or knowing what to do with my body in social settings.


If I am needing to write or complete work, it helps me focus to have music on my headphones.


I always carry a face mask, pens, paper, hand sanitizer, and other traditional things.


Noise canceling head phones or ear plugs are a must. When the supervisor plays a video that is too loud and distorted in their crappy speakers, I can save myself the pain of listening at that level without having to disrupt everyone else’s comfort with the noise.

It is okay to request lower volume, too.


I usually wear or carry a hat to help with sunlight or harsh overhead lighting.


Autistic people tend to run warmer and easily overheat. It’s important to think this through if you experience sensitivity to heat. I bring a portable fan. You could also bring ice in a cold thermos to drink cold water or ice packs if you have space to store them.


Always dress comfortably and if you need extras, pack extra. Dress codes are ableist and racist. If you are feeling distressed by a forced dress code, consider getting accommodation for that. After all, your capacity drops when you are uncomfortable in your clothes.


So that’s the kind of things I tend to pack routinely. These are the things I need to attend to appropriate and healthy self care.


Have you thought about what you need? Do you feel silly about packing with your needs in mind? Why? Our bodies and minds were not designed for sitting and staring at screens nor were we prepared for the social effects, dangers, or overwhelming access to information the internet created. We live high stress, high demand lifestyles. We barely stop to drink water between work, dropping kids off, and making dinner. Why? Don’t we deserve transition breaks, time to reflect and check in with our bodies, time for unproductive fun? Don’t let anyone tell you those needs are not valid or childish. You may be preventing illness by addressing instead of ignoring your needs.


I recommend trying out various stims to see what you like and notice the effect you feel from it, how you might use it in your daily life. Does it calm you down, help you focus, or get you stimulated? Stimming is healthy behavior for anyone, not just autistic people.


Feel free to share your thoughts or feedback.


D’Angelo out!

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