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Neurodivergent Co-Regulation

Updated: 7 days ago

Being neurodivergent can be really hard work in a world that is mostly still lacking in an understanding of the differences in sensory, social, and communication needs of autistic/ADHD and other neurodivergent people. Different lived experiences can create a double empathy gap (Milton, 2012). This means that people's needs are often not adequately met, and this gap can leave neurodivergent people feeling disconnected and dysregulated. I feel the double empathy problem goes beyond neurotype, culture, gender, class, religion or any other differences and intersections in society. The disconnect feels like a double empathy extreme problem (DEEP), which is rooted in the differences between people when they are embodied and truly present with another person with their whole bodymind and when they are not, regardless of neurotype or any other differences of lived experience and it may be felt more intensely by neurodivergent people.

Safety and Masking

For people to be regulated, they need to feel safe; if people feel secure in their environment and with the people around them, they have a better chance of doing well, feeling happy and thriving. If neurodivergent people's needs are not met, it means they will not be able to feel safe; they will be more likely to feel dysregulated and living in a survival state, which can lead to burnout and mental health difficulties. For young autistic people in a school setting, this may mean that the expectations for them to behave, sit, work and interact with their peers and teachers in a certain neurotypical way can cause a lot of stress. They will have less capacity to manage and are less likely to be regulated on a day-to-day basis. Many neurodivergent people mask (subconsciously or consciously) to try and fit in; this means that their inner neurodivergent needs are often suppressed, and this has repercussions on states of regulation and well-being.

As an example for young people in school, this may look like a child being so focused on the act of sitting still to meet their teacher's expectations whilst they are giving instructions and lesson input that they disregard their own sensory needs. Their sensory system may need other input to regulate and balance whilst learning to enable them to engage and attend meaningfully. Some neurodivergent people may need movement (vestibular/ proprioceptive input), different scents, or a kind of stacking system of multisensory tools (music/snacks/drink) to help them learn and maintain flow more effectively (Heasman et al., 2024). This may be particularly relevant for autistic / ADHD people who may process monotropically and have a greater need to achieve a flow state to learn and be regulated. (Murray et al., 2005 & Garau, 2023). The inner battle between meeting sensory, social and communication needs and neuronormative expectations can lead to painful states of dysregulation for neurodivergent people. Masking and trying to fit in is exhausting; it takes energy and is only sustainable for so long before a person reaches their capacity and can no longer carry on. The body and mind's way of managing this state of hyperarousal and overload is to try and regulate through what may be seen as a meltdown or shutdown. Time and compassion are needed to support people through this period in a way that best suits them without pressure to be a certain way or regulate in a certain way. Ideally, we want to reduce the amount of overwhelm neurodivergent people experience; we need more time and space for people to be themselves and regulate throughout the day so that these painful extremes are not reached as intensely or frequently.


Adopting a low-demand approach is often considered a good idea for neurodivergent people; the fewer demands and the less stress a person experiences, the better regulated they can be. Co-regulation is another useful strategy to consider alongside a low-demand approach to help people achieve a better balance throughout the day and support a smoother journey, whether at home, school, or work. Co-regulation is an embodied presence of togetherness; being with people in a meaningful way helps balance and recharge the sensory system and bodymind. Co-regulation needs trust as a foundation. You can't co-regulate if there is a battle of power dynamics; co-regulating is about being together as humans and connecting at a deeper level, as equals.

"Co-regulation is the act of soothing and helping to calm someone during a moment of dysregulation. No-one is born with the ability to self-soothe; it is a skill we develop over time and with experience. Children need repeated experiences of co-regulation from a regulated adult before they can begin to self-regulate.
We may have to act as “external nervous systems” for children who are constantly in a heightened state. By being nearby and in a state of regulation ourselves, this can help a child’s Nervous System to become regulated." (Spectrum Gaming: Barriers to Education, The Importance of Co-regulation and Selfcare)

Co-regulation means being with people in a way that really works for them. It is not necessarily always about sharing a physical space; it is not about talking someone through guided breathing or meditation exercises; it does not involve a teacher taking a child to a sensory room and putting a bubble tube on in the hope that they will somehow magically become regulated over time, or trying to coerce a person into regulating in a a specific way. Co-regulation is about knowing a person, really knowing a person and meeting them where they are; thinking of ways to be with them meaningfully to help them regulate and feel more balanced and recharged again. It may mean joining in a shared activity, or it may mean joining in a shared space and time with a different activity; there are no set rules for how co-regulation can be experienced or take place.

Co-regulation is about sharing an embodied flow. If a person is regulated they’ll be able to enter flow more effectively and this can have great outcomes for play and work. Intermittently checking in and adjusting things in the environment and meeting physical and sensory needs helps to maintain a regulated flow state. It is worth bearing in mind that many neurodivergent people are also alexithymic (difficulty understanding or finding the words to describe own emotions or those of others) and have difficulties with their interoception system (internal sensory system). This can mean that it may be hard for some neurodivergent people to know when they need moments of regulation before they reach a crisis point, and it may be harder for them to understand what is needed to rebalance and recharge. Supporting adults need to consider this, we need to think about changing the environment and ways of being with people, not creating shame for being dysregulated or not managing to regulate in certain neuronormative expected ways.

It can help if people model effective ways to regulate themselves so children (or other neurodivergent people you are with) can either mirror or learn methods of regulating that may work for them. Over time, trying different ways to regulate can create a toolbox of strategies that children can learn to dip into by themselves. Co-regulating can help create a shared understanding and a sense of meaning that can be supportive, add value to a person's life, and support their well-being. Sharing stories and talking about how it feels to be dysregulated and what works for each other can be another really good idea to help reduce feelings of shame that often come with dysregulated states.

Talking openly about how you feel and what helps can be really validating for others to hear and opens up a space for them to share with you, too, if they are comfortable. Ideas to model co-regulation strategies will vary from person to person but may include things like stating when you need a moment for yourself and explaining that going on a run or taking a few moments to sit with a weighted blanket with headphones on helps you. Being regulated is not trying to achieve a zen state. It is about feeling more balanced within yourself. This may mean some people need sensory input and others may need sensory input to be reduced (it may even be a multidimensional and dynamic combination of different sensory balancing acts is needed!). Modelling ways that work for you can be helpful; having resources of things like weighted blankets / sensory tools and a few of a person's favourite things nearby for easy access can be comforting and help create lots of little co-regulation bubbles of togetherness throughout the day. Embodied Presence

For people who may be feeling dysregulated, co-regulating needs adults to adopt the role of being a 'space holder' for their children  Aldred (2023). Offering space and time for children to be with you in a way that works for them. Being with people may have a different meaning for neurodivergent people to a neurotypical understanding of what 'being with' someone means. For neurodivergent people, 'being with' may not mean actually being with that person in a shared space; it may not mean playdates, meals out, or organised activities together. Being with someone may be more of a felt presence that some one 'gets them' rather than an actual activity for some people. Co-regulating with people means being with people in ways that work for their physical, social and sensory needs. It may be more a shared knowing and understanding that another person is 'with them' although not necessarily next to them as that may be overwhelming for some people. For example, joining an online game, sharing music in a chat room or knowing you are each happy being in your own dens/spaces in your house can all be meaningful ways of co-regulating. For some people, and especially younger children, joining in alongside one of their favourite activities, TV programmes, or sensory play activities can be really helpful and a nice low-demand way of co-regulating. Being with people is about understanding people's true needs for their own time and space and each person knowing they are there for each other.

Co-regulation needs to happen throughout the day and not be used as a behaviour management strategy only when a person is in crisis. Co-regulation is not just about adults being calm around children who are dysregulated, although that certainly helps! As adults, we need to try and offer moments of being with children in ways that are meaningful for them throughout the day to increase togetherness time, which will support regulation, reduce crisis and also bring some glimmers and moments of joy into the day!

Parallel play and joining in an activity alongside another person (child or adult) can be a really nice low-demand way of showing an interest in another person's activities and developing deeper connections. For some people body doubling (doing separate activities at the same time) can be a way of sharing a flow state and can really help with regulation and inertia. Knowing someone is there with you in a shared space (online or in person depending on what works for you both) is priceless when you’re feeling stuck, alone or dysregulated. Body doubling can support co-regulation and work for everyone as it allows more autonomy over your own environment and sensory needs to get tasks done and maintain a more regulated and balanced flow state.

Sharing penguin pebbles can also create a sense of belonging, mutual understanding and love and be a way of supporting co-regulation. Sharing things that bring you joy and sharing things that you know also bring another person joy is a way of connecting, it creates happy feelings and a sense of belonging and being cared for and understood. Examples of penguin pebbling include finding little things that bring you joy to share with someone else. This can be anything from twigs or stones that you come across on your walk to listening to music together, sharing memes online or creating time for your child to share their junk model creations or to watch their new gymnastics or dance shows. Creating little bubbles of co-regulation in the day together can help restore and rebalance everyone's sensory system and energy levels and support regulation.

Embodied People + Environment = Regulated Outcome & Potential to Thrive

Beardon's (2017) famous equation, 'Autism + Environment = Outcome, ' is really important to consider when working specifically with autistic people but I think a version of this can be applied to everyone. If people are embodied and their environment meets needs there is a better chance of people being regulated and being able to thrive. Offering spaces and bubbles of co-regulation throughout the day in ways that work for and with people can help create a sense of safety and belonging. Being regulated and feeling connected is a human need we all have and deserve so we can thrive.

Other signposting about co-regulation that may be of interest: Stimpunks - Co-Regulation Glossary Trauma Geek - Polyvagal Theory: Spectrum Gaming Barrier to Education - Co-Regulation: Kelly Mahler - The Power of Co-Regulation:


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