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We’re so used to telling children with autism what to do – stand up, sit down, look here. That seems to be the way many people think our children learn.

Do we want passive children who wait to be told what to do? Or do we want children who can think on their own? Do we want our children as adults to stand around and worry about what might happen? Or do we want them to figure out what to do?

The passive approach leads to dependence on others. Active thinking leads to problem-solving and greater independence.

Children need to be engaged and involved. They need to participate actively and think on their own.

Here are six things to get this started:

1. Help your child understand the meaning and purpose of things you ask them to do. Children (like anyone else) are more likely to be interested in activities if they see some purpose. Explain in simple words why you’re doing activities and why you’re using different strategies – “We’re practicing doing Turtle Breathing to help your brain and body feel calm”, “We’re brushing your teeth so they stay healthy and strong”, “We’re being systematic so we don’t miss anything.”

2. Prompt them to think on their own – This is difficult for a lot of adults because it means waiting. You have to be prepared to wait and give children time to think. Encourage them with positive messages – “I know you’ve got lots of good ideas”. Don’t worry if your child struggles a bit. Be patient and calm and let them try. Use questions to prompt them – “What can you do to help yourself?”, “What do you think we’re supposed to do here?” If your child seems stuck, give some hints – “Is there something missing here?”, “It might be easier if you did this part first”.

3. Give them a chance to show what they can do – Give your child freedom and confidence to do things on their own. Children often surprise us when we give them a chance. Stand back and let them try on their own. Let small errors pass. Praise what they can do. We want our children to be unafraid of trying. They need to learn that making mistakes is part of learning.

4. Make your child feel competent – Feelings of competence come from experiencing success. Encourage your child with patient interest in what they’re doing. Be positive even if your child doesn’t do what you expected – “Hmm, that’s really interesting. Help me understand what you did.”, “That doesn’t look like what I got. Let’s check it out.” Avoid negative words, like “no”, “not” and “don’t”. They can stop your child from trying. 

5. Give your child a sense of control – Your child needs to become the commander of his own body, thinking, and emotions. Let them try things out without fear of being corrected. Of course, you’ll choose the activity carefully so they’ll be safe. But let them try out their wings.

6. Share activities and experiences with your child – Children need to know we’re there to support them. If they have problems, we’ll be there. The other side of that is that we expect them to be actively involved with us. There’s a sense of ‘we’ when doing activities. Use the word ‘we’ to signal to your child that it’s the two of you working on a task or activity. Let your child make some choices about what to do, how and/or when. This gives them a feeling of participating rather than being told what to do.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

Here are a few apps I found that are intended to teach calming mindfulness to children. I tried each one out and gave my evaluation of each. Try them out for yourself.

My criteria for apps include:

  1. they have to be free.  That gives you a chance to try them out before you decide to ‘buy’ into them.
  2. they can’t be too chatty. If they go on and on it’s just plain annoying. I find myself glazing over and can just imagine what it’ll do to our children.
  3. they use regular language. A number of the apps use concepts and images that are just too complicated – they cloud important issues.


Description: guided meditation for beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced users. Sessions are available in lengths of 3, 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 minutes.
Age range: 4 years and up
Format: iOS and Android
Cost: free (some features)
Evaluation: instructions are a little chatty and not well suited to young children and/or children who have language processing difficulties. With proper adult guidance, it could be useful.


Description: offers meditation, guided visualization and affirmations for children and teens.
Age range: 2 years to 18
Format: iOS
Cost: free (some features)
Evaluation: nice feature allows you to add and then control the volume of background sounds; peaceful (not gimmicky) meditations that would be suitable for children from 8 years and up

Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness

Description: offers guided meditation,
Age range: 4 years of age and up
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: a little chatty about all sorts of things other than breathing which may complicate things for kids with autism

**Stop, Breathe, and Think Kids

Description: offers children a fun and easy way to identify and process their emotions. From counting breaths to friendly wishes or frog jumps, each activity brings fun rewards to keep them engaged. Here’s an overview:
Age range: 5 to 10 years of age
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: each lesson is based on what you indicate to be your mood at that moment; nice simple language and concrete way to lead breathing (tracing fingers up and down to breathe in and out), guided meditation is quite sweet where you express gratitude to everyone involved in bringing raisins to you plus mindful eating of the raisin
**From my sampling, I’d give this one a good thumbs-up

Smiling Mind

Description: teaches mindfulness meditation
Age range: 7 years of age up
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: doesn’t really seem suited to children, uses concepts that wouldn’t be appreciated by most children

Super Stretch Yoga

Description: teach basic yoga moves and breathing to children
Age range: 4 years of age up
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: effectively uses animated animals and videos of children doing the different moves. I just wish it wasn’t so fast-paced.

**Relax Melodies

Description: Mix and listen to over 52 different relaxing sounds with background sound support — this app can be used while using other apps. Have a look at a brief overview
Age range: 2 years of age up
Format: iOS and Android
Cost: free
Evaluation: able to build interesting combinations of calming sounds that can relax and centre your child’s mind.
** I’ve played with this quite a bit and find it relaxing

I recommend using action songs of all sorts to teach self-regulation. Learning to stop, start and change movements to music and songs is a lot of fun. Not only that, it’s a great way for them to learn how to manage their behavior, thinking and emotions. Bonus! That also leads to greater success in school.

All of this from playing Simon Says? Well, not completely but action songs are a fun way to start. When you play Simon Says (here are step-by-step instructions), children have to pay attention, listen carefully for the words “Simon says” before doing the action. Add in distractions and excitement and you have a great way to firm up your self-regulation skills.

Change how slowly or how quickly you sing each song or play each game. Change your voice to loud or soft or your ‘everyday voice’. Clap, stomp, jump or move quickly, softly, hard … any variation that helps children control their bodies. I’ve had a lot of fun when I asked the children to decide how they want to vary each song or chorus. Give them a chance to be leader and see if your self-regulation skills are up to snuff.

Any songs and games where you have to start and stop (that is regulate your attention and body) are excellent ways to work on self-regulation. Just make sure to stop while it’s still fun.

Here are some resources to help you get started:
For preschoolers and early elementary-age (Primary through Year 2) children
Nicky’s Nursery Rhymes:
Early Years Experiences Songs and Rhymes – Action Songs
Mama Lisa’s World International Music and Culture Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes
Kiddles Kids’ Songs Complete List
Elementary School Music Early Childhood Songs and Rhymes
Action songs
Action songs
Action songs:
Action songs
Clapping games, songs, and rhymes

Songs and rhymes for older children
Scout Songs
Action Camp Songs
Dragon’s Campfire Songbook
Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Lyrics
Ultimate Campfire Resource:

It’s not just children with autism or other conditions who need help with self-regulation. Every child could use a little help but some need more. Most children will need help at different stages in life. Self-regulation doesn’t just happen for many children.

As we talked about in February 2018, learning self-regulation takes a long time. Developing and refining self-regulation takes at least the first two decades of life. And, each of the five key executive functions develops at different paces; some maturing earlier, some later.

So who needs help?

Do you find that you have to remind your child over and over and over to:

  • Put his things away (like his jacket or toys)
  • Calm down
  • Slow down
  • Use a quiet voice or speak a little louder
  • Listen carefully
  • Not hit or push other children
  • Do something on his own from beginning to end (like homework or chores)

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, your child could benefit from working on self-regulation.

Often we get used to patterns of behavior and don’t really notice if a child is different from others his age.

The Executive Function Survey will help you summarize your day-to-day experience and let you look at some of these patterns. Go ahead and complete the survey. Once you’ve finished answering all the items, add up each column from pages one and two. There are a total of 25 items but, even if your child does three or more things ‘very frequently’ or ‘always’, you should start working on your child’s self-regulation.

I’ve had parents say, “Oh, he’s just a busy boy.” and pass off the behaviors as just being a kid. That’s not really helping him. We all know what can happen if we just wait and see.

Start now and don’t wait for failure or bad experiences.

Here are some storybooks for helping children with self-regulating their bodies.

Hand movements (mainly for younger children)
Bowie, C. (2003). Busy Fingers. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge
Chapman, J. (2013). Hands Off My Honey! Wilton , CT: Tiger Tales.
Hoberman, M. (2003). Miss Mary Mack: A Hand-Clapping Rhyme. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Hoberman, M. (2000). The eensy-weensy spider. Boston, MA: Little Brown Young Readers
Martin, B. and Archambault, J. (1985). Here are my hands. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Perkins, A. (1960). Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. New York: Random House. Sister Susan,

Sister Thuc Nghiem, Thi Hop Nguyen & Dong Nguyen (2002). Each Breath a Smile. Berkeley, CA: Plum Blossom Books (1)
Example storybooks where the main character could benefit from Turtle Breathing Breathing
Bang, Molly (1999). When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry. New York: Scholastic.
Newman, Jeff (2006). Hippo! No, Rhino. NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Niland, D. (2005). Annie’s Chair. NY: Bloomsbury Juvenile.

Foot movement

Aliki (1990). My feet. New York: Harper and Row.

Blanchard, A. (1988). Sounds my feet make. New York: Random House Inc.

Voice regulation
Munsch, Robert (1985). Mortimer. Vancouver, BC: Annick Press.

Whole body movement
Agell, Charlotte (1994). Dancing feet. New York: Gulliver Books
Carle, E. (1999). From Head to Toe. New York: Harper Festival.
Carle, E. (2002). “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” said the sloth. New York: Philomel Books.
La Prise, Larry (1997). The hokey pokey. Nashville, TN: Simon and Schuster.
Newcome, Zita (1996). Toddlerobics. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Example storybooks about the need for self-regulation
**Ellis, S. (2008). The Queen’s Feet. Markham, ON: Red Deer Press. (2)
Falconer, I. (2000). Olivia. New York: Atheneum.
Shannon, D. (2000). No David. Markham, ON: Scholastic Canada. (3)
Steig, William (1998). Pete’s a pizza. New York: HarperCollins.
Wells, R. (2002). Max Cleans Up. New York: Puffin.

(1) This book has a bit of a Zen emphasis to it so check carefully to see if it’s appropriate.

(2) I love this book because it presents the issue of very busy feet and comes to a very reasonable resolution (can let your feet loose for an hour a day)
(3) I’m not fond of this book because it uses a lot of negatives (No!) – be cautious about choosing which children might benefit from it.

The more you know and understand about each child, the better your work on self-regulation will be.

Find out about brothers and sisters and other family members. Who could be a self-regulation partner?

Find out about other therapies children are involved in. The average child with autism in the United States gets seven different therapies (1) – if that sounds like a lot, one child in the survey was receiving 52 different therapies!!! You need to know other therapies going on – What’s being asked of the children? Are there things that could make it more difficult for the children to become more independent? What  therapies do they like or dislike? What therapies made a difference and which ones didn’t seem to work? It’s all important for understanding what’s being asked of the children, how busy their schedules are, and what seems to work.

Make sure you know the children’s interests and things they dislike. Bring in their passions and affinities – they’ll keep them interested. Find out what they prefer in terms of videos or movies, games, TV shows, computer programs, books, toys, characters from videos, TV, games and/or books and music. Also, be sure to avoid things they don’t like – that can really turn them off (“yuck, My Little Ponies are stupid!”).

Be aware of each child’s strengths and areas of difficulty. Find out about children’s reading, fine motor and gross motor skills (2). I’ve seen too many speech-language therapists use coloring activities with children who have fine motor problems. The poor kids understandably hated coloring because it was too difficult to control that darned crayon/color. Problems with motor skills are common in children with autism (2).

Here’s a form I developed for spark* and spark*EL that you can use to gather information.

(1) Green, V.A., Pituch, K.A., Itchon, J., Choi, A., O’Reilly, M., & Sigafoos, J. (2006). Internet survey of treatments used by parents of children with autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 27(1), 70-84.
(2) Problems with motor skills are common in children with autism (3). More than half have low muscle tone and about 9% have large muscle (gross motor) delays where the child looks clumsy. More than one-third have motor dyspraxia, or difficulty planning, coordinating, producing and reproducing actions and movements with their bodies. Children can have problems imitating gestures (such as waving or making thumbs up) and actions, using tools (such as pencils, scissors, toothbrushes).
(3) Ming, X., Brimacombe, M., & Wagner, G. C. (2007). Prevalence of motor impairment in autism spectrum disorders. Brain & development, 29(9), 565–70.

In the very first spark* News (December 2017) I mentioned I was criticized for having a child doing handsprings on the cover of spark* and spark*EL. The criticism came from a parent of two children (now young adults) with autism. She said she didn’t want her children doing handsprings. I, in my sometimes less-than-tactful manner, said that I want kids on the spectrum to have times when they can let loose. I want them to know there are times when they can feel the joy of standing on their heads, kicking up their feet, yelling at the top of their lungs, flicking pieces of string, flapping their hands and fingers. Those are exciting and really enjoyable. Why would we want to squelch them?? Talk about joyless childhoods! 

Self-regulation is a limited thing. Your ‘self-regulation’ battery can keep going and but it will run out. Children just learning to self-regulate will find it even more draining. After working on self-regulation, children will mentally and physically tired. Their ability to self-regulate will drop off. They’ll develop the ‘grouchies’ and become more distractible. Researchers find this in everyone, not just children with autism.

So what can you do? First of all, make sure the child C.A.N. self-regulate. We’ve talked in previous editions of spark* News about making sure children are Calm (the “C” in C.A.N.), Alert (the “A” in C.A.N) and nourished. Do a few moments of Turtle Breathing before you start. Make sure you’re asking children to practice self-regulation only when they’re well-rested and feeling okay. If they didn’t sleep well the night before or aren’t feeling well, you should either forget practicing self-regulation or do an activity that was successful before. Children’s brains and bodies need well-balanced diets to function (check the June 2018 spark* News for more information). So … this means you need to check if children C.A.N. self-regulate before starting. Teach children to check for themselves – “Am I calm? Is my brain alert and ready to work? Did I eat some good food?” Make a checklist for the children, like the one below, so they can check for themselves.
Second, use activities that include their areas of high interest. That can be computers, flags, clocks, maps, Thomas the Tank Engine … you name it. It’ll make practice more fun and enjoyable and they won’t fatigue as quickly. 

Third, don’t practice too long. I recommend working on new things for no more than two minutes for every year of the child’s age. That means, a two year old should practice no more than four minutes. And an eight year old should practice for no more than 16 minutes. You want to stop when children are still keen to do more. You can practice for longer periods once the children become stronger self-regulators. That is, their ‘self-regulation batteries’ expand their power limits.

Fourth, give every child times and places when they don’t have to self-regulate. They need to just be themselves and let loose. Select places where children can be un-regulated – the backyard/garden, the playground, bedroom, whatever works. Also, choose times when it’s okay. Post the rules so children know when they can release the brakes and do handsprings if they want.

Here are some resources for helping children become calm and centered.


Resource books on yoga

Wiertsema, H. (2001). 101 Movement Games for Children: Fun and Learning with Playful Moving. Alameda, CA: Hunter House

Chryssica, M. (2006). I love Yoga. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Garabedian, H. (2008). Itsy Bitsy Yoga for Toddlers and Preschoolers: 8-Minute Routines to Help Your Child Grow Smarter, Be Happier, and Behave Better. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

Mainland, Pauline (1998). A yoga parade of animals. Boston: Element Children’s Books

Purperhart, H. (2007). The Yoga Adventure for Children: Playing, Dancing, Moving, Breathing, Relaxing Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Purperhart, H. (2008). The Yoga Zoo Adventure: Animal Poses and Games for Little Kids. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Bersma, D. & Visscherm M. (2003). Yoga Games for Children: Fun and Fitness with Postures, Movements and Breath. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

A: We actually do work on attention while we focus on the different executive functions.

First let’s look at a few different kinds of attention:

  1. Selective attention – this is where attention is paid only to the most important information available. We choose what to focus on – sights, sounds, smells, taste or feel – whatever is most important. This means paying less attention to or ignoring other things.
  2. Sustained attention – this is where we sustain or continue paying attention. ian-dooley-280945-unsplash.jpg
  3. Shifting attention – this is where we move our  attention from one thing to another. It’s really important when we have to keep a few things in mind at the same time. We have to move our focus from one thing to another.

When we work on executive functions, we’re working on all  types of attention. Take inhibitory control for example, children have to focus on just the most important things. At the same time, they have to ignore things that aren’t important. This takes selective attention, sustained attention, and sometimes, shifting attention.  When planning and organizing, children have to pay attention to just the most important things, keep their focus while making their plan, and shift their attention from one item to the next.

As you can see, attention is an important focus to our approach. But it’s integrated into the total program rather than being worked on separately.

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

We’ve talked about calm adults and how important it is to be calm around children, especially those with autism. But how about the children?

We know that anxiety is a huge issue for most people with autism. Around 80% experience mild to severe anxiety on a daily basis (1).

We simply can’t remove every source of anxiety and stress.

In fact, anxiety can sometimes be helpful. Being a little bit anxious can keep us on our toes and  alert to what’s going on. If there’s a total lack of stress, it’s easy to slip into boredom – not great for learning.

But too much anxiety pushes children with autism into distress. Distress can be caused by an unscheduled change, too much stimulation, anything unknown … all sort of things. Check out my adaptation of the Groden Stress Survey to see what things stress out your child with autism.

Our goal should be to expand the range of optimal stress. That’s the place where our children are alert and interested. They need effective strategies so to help them expand that region and regain it if they start heading into distress.

About the worst thing you could do is to tell a stressed child, “Just calm down”. That’s like adding fuel to a fire. It can make things worse.

We need to teach child how to be calm when they’re calm. First, our children with autism need to experience what calm feels like. Many of them have no idea what their bodies and brains feel like in a state of calm. That’s where we start – we have to help them understand what ‘calm’ is.

Using a simple technique like Turtle Breathing (slow mindful breathing) is powerful. You help them focus on the inflow and outflow of air through their nose or mouth. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. Think only of your breath. Let ideas that sneak into your brain float away and think only about the air coming in and out of your nose or mouth. Do that for just a few minutes to start. Help your child understand that this is what ‘calm’ feels like. Being calm helps your brain and body work better.

In spark* and spark*EL, we practice Turtle Breathing until children learn they can do it themselves (the Awareness of Ability phase of learning). Then we help them understand where and when it can be helpful (that’s the Awareness of Need phase of learning). After carefully establishing those things and practicing, we’re ready to take it on the road and into action in everyday life.

Practice Turtle Breathing with your child. The video below will give you some ideas about how to teach slow calm breathing.

Check out some of the Resources below.