Written in March 2023
I like the phrase “regulation-issue” for the implication of a standard. I know where I am with standardised things, which is why I've built up a standard list of things that regulate me – my regulation-issue regulating activities.
Regulating myself isn't a singular pursuit, there's physical regulation, emotional regulation, cognitive regulation, dietary regulation... the list goes on. Happily, many of the things that regulate me in these ways work across all the things that need regulating. They really are regulation-issue!
The neurodivergent brain is individual to all, so we will all have different things that regulate us. Autistic people can be sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant (or both), so while one autistic person might find a blank room very calming, another may find it distressing because of the lack of sensory input. Personally, I find sensory gardens for autistic people to be sensorily overwhelming. I physically stim when I need to focus, but when I am overwhelmed my physical stim is actually to stay as still as possible, thus removing most, if not all, proprioceptive input.
The ADHD neurotype is one which seeks stimulation and which needs it to function. It's why stimulants have a calming, regulating effect on people with ADHD. By providing the stimulation that the brain craves, the person is able to focus more effectively and for a longer period of time because they are not having to attend to their brain's constant demand for stimulation. ADHD requires stimulation (input) as a form of regulation.
Sensory regulation is something absolutely vital for autistic people, as sensory processing differences are a defining factor of our neurodivergence (it's part of the diagnostic criteria). As I have said, some autistic people tend to seek out sensory input while others tend to avoid it. Sensory seeking/avoidance usually involves the five main senses (visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch) but can also involve varioception and proprioception (hanging upside down, spinning, using a weighted blanket).
People can, and often do, experience both seeking and avoidant behaviour. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the input to a particular sense and have to regulate by avoiding it until our systems have calmed down. Visual and auditory overstimulation are both common for me, and I need sameness (or minimal visual processing) and quiet to regulate myself.
Emotional regulation is a challenge for many neurodivergent people, but it's most prevalent in autism and ADHD, as an aspect of the condition itself. Being neurodivergent or disabled in other ways presents more emotional and mental health challenges than for the “healthy” population.
Cognitive regulation is one which I'm going to give a very idiosyncratic view of and it may or may not resonate with others. While I enjoy learning and hyperfocusing on things, I find it has an exhausting effect on my energy levels and enjoyment, so I try to regulate the amount of time I spend deep-diving or studying in order to allow my brain time to process and really lock in all that information, indexed, and cross referenced with my existing knowledge base. I take frequent breaks when I have to concentrate for a long time.
Physical regulation is important for me when I feel myself getting physically tense (as a result of cognitive or emotional overstimulation; even positive emotions are overstimulating and require regulation for slowing down the processing) and due to a physical health condition (fibromyalgia). Regular exercise is the key (for me) to managing the physical impact of fibromyalgia. Sleep is also vital for all forms of regulation.
Dietary regulation is perhaps a little tenuous here, but I find my IBS is very manageable if I eat according to a regulated system. That means heavy on the fibre, fruit and vegetables and not having more than one veg-free meal a week. Many autistic people have co-occurring gastric issues and they can be very hard to deal with when there are also sensory issues with food to deal with. I count myself very lucky to have minimal sensory issues with food (especially given the various intolerances I have to work around).
The regulating activities I have at my disposal are mostly physical distractions that allow for parallel processing of information or feelings (cognitive and emotional), while addressing physical needs too. Yoga (and before I found yoga, simple stretches) is a really big one for me and one that I am looking forward to exploring more. Going for a brisk walk is also very valuable for resetting and restoring my brain, and the more nature there is on that walk, the better.
Both of these things help to regulate my digestive system, yoga for the internal massage effect, and walking for the general movement effect. They are the two main things that really help me.
I also find knitting, doing puzzles (jigsaws and things like codewords and sudoku) are good as a distraction when exercise isn't an option (or I've already done that and need more). These are activities that are better for emotional regulation, rather than physical or cognitive, as they require some parts of my brain that I also need for cognitive regulation. Knitting is fairly detached, from a cognitive perspective, and it depends on the difficulty of the jigsaw as to whether it also needs the cognitive processing parts of my brain.
There are times when I need to flit from one activity to the next, or between activities in order to satisfy my brain's demand for novelty (which it does sometimes ask for). Yes, most of the time I prefer familiarity and routine but sometimes my brain just wants lots of input, especially on days when I have a lot to do, or have lots of energy. I have found that stinging nettle seeds (a mild stimulant) taken daily helps regulate my brain and calms the noise inside my head that used to really get in the way of getting things done and finished. If nothing else convinced me of my ADHD (apart from, y'know, the screening tools) then my reaction to stimulants certainly did. One time I took a second dose and nearly fell asleep!
Knowing I'm autistic and likely an ADHDer (AuDHD) with other elements of neurodivergence thrown in has enabled me to understand the importance of regulating activities in my life, and encouraged me to indulge in the ones that help me. Without this knowledge I might have ended up getting frustrated with myself when the standard self-care activities weren't doing the job. Self-care looks different for everyone, and for me it sometimes looks like being absolutely still, sometimes it looks like getting lost in a puzzle, sometimes it looks like writing these articles.