Autism. So what is regulation?

Both parents and child have a role in this game and for it to work properly, everyone has to do their part and take responsibility for it. A great example of physical regulation! 'Regulation' is a key concept in RDI. I even have a category on this blog for entries that might talk about regulation. However, it occurred to me the other day when someone asked me what it meant, that I had never actually explained what it is.

So here goes.



Regulation is the give and take, the pull and push, the back and forth that is required to make a social exchange.


You could think of it in terms of playing tennis. Two people stand on opposite ends of the court. They hit the ball back and forth. To make it a game worth playing, they should both be able to hit back and forth pretty evenly. They must be able to regulate to each other’s ability.

Having a conversation with someone (adult or child) who cannot regulate adequately is kind of like me playing tennis with Venus Williams. I can’t hit quick shots. I can’t serve decently. To make the game work (and I don't just mean for her to beat me, but for the game itself to be fun, challenging and entertaining for both of us), Venus would have to change her game seriously and bring it down to my level.

There are always at least two players in any conversation or social exchange. But if one player keeps dropping the ball, or doesn’t get what’s going on, the others must take on more responsibility to make sure the exchange doesn’t fail.

If you take on more responsibility in the exchange, you are ‘regulating’ for the other person.

Imagine a conversation with a typical three year old. There's a certain amount of communication going on there, but you have to change the way you relate pretty drastically. You are regulating.

A child is an obvious example, but you may also have to regulate subtly if the other person is: new, older, younger, not socially capable, not in your peer group, shy or awkward, has language difficulties or culture differences, has different interests or a different background from you.

Regulating is not relaxing or easy. It’s quite hard to change the way you naturally relate to others. The more you have to regulate when you don’t expect to have to regulate, the less comfortable the encounter or friendship.

So if a person looks like she should be able to relate on a peer level, but you find that it’s not quite working and you have to change your game, it becomes awkward and difficult and you often want to leave or avoid that person forever.

Learning to regulate

Can you learn to regulate? Yes. But it's a long process. And it's different from learning particular and distinct 'social skills'.

A person could learn that you shake hands when you meet someone new. That's a social skill. But regulating means understanding how long, how hard and how vigorous to shake for. Regulating means reading the other person's reaction to the shake and adjusting accordingly.  

Regulating involves not only connecting with the other person, but also recognising and fixing any failures of communication that happen.

Early regulation for children

Children start to learn to regulate with other people from the very earliest exchanges with their parents.

Lots of early regulation is actually physical regulation. Think of a child and parent who learn to walk holding hands – they have to walk at the same pace around obstacles together.

A pair who are walking together, with both taking responsibility to make it work, is a whole different experience from a parent who’s hanging on to his child's hand for dear life while the kid is forging ahead without thinking about anyone else.

Or think of it like a parent and child walking up stairs in step together. They’re always checking with each other to make sure they’re doing it together. With regulation, they can make it into a joint activity rather than just two individuals climbing stairs coincidentally at the same time.

Conversational and relational regulation are a next step from physical regulation. Like climbing the stairs regulating in a social exchange still involves checking with the person to make sure they’re on the same page, but the checking is way more subtle and has become intuitive by this stage. It’s the same skill as climbing the stairs together, just a more sophisticated version.

What about you?

If a child you know seems unable to recognise and fix communication breakdowns with his peers, it would be worth checking if he or she can actually physically regulate with other people yet.

Try some wordless, physical activities where you are doing something ‘together’ and have to communicate to fix any breakdowns non-verbally. Over time, the child will learn more and more how to take responsibility for his side of the activity. As physical regulation improves, social regulation should improve as well.