Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Autism Discussion Page: Comfort Zones

Autism Discussion Page is a wonderful Facebook page with a lot of great information.  The writer has recently been writing about comfort zones. I wanted to share with you something that he originally posted.  Once you are finished reading this, please go over and check out his page. 

Safety in comfort zones! Define them, respect them, but slowly stretch them!

Comfort zones are where children feel safe and secure, with minimal anxiety. They are the zones of familiarity, predictability, and control that serve to buffer the child from the chaotic, confusing world around them. They minimize “uncertainty” and anxiety. They often include rigid, ritualistic routines. The children can strongly resist stepping outside of these comfort zones. Stepping outside of these comfort zones usually represent strong anxiety.

Although there can be numerous comfort zones, the five below are very common ones that must be respected.


We need to be familiar with what the children’s sensory preferences and vulnerabilities are; what overwhelms them, what stimulation alerts them, and what stimulation comforts and soothes them. The child may be hyper-sensitive (sensory avoiders) in some areas, and sensory seekers in other areas. They may have sensory issues that set off “panic”, which must be respected and accommodated for. Because of their sensitivities to bright lights, load noises, strong smells, and various touches, the world can be very overwhelming and scary for the child. We need to be keenly aware of what their sensitivities are and help soften the sensory bombardment they experience.

In turn these children will also have sensory preferences that they are attracted to, seek out, and can be used to engage them. These preferences can also be used to build learning experiences around. They also can be used to calm and organize the child. Many of these children also have one preferred sense that they explore their world with and use for learning (tactile, visual, or auditory learning styles). It is important that we identify and use that preferred sense to maximize teaching. By identifying these sensory experiences we can use these attractions to motivate both relating and learning.


Social anxiety can be very strong for people on the spectrum. Since they have difficulty reading social cues, understanding unwritten social rules, and co-regulating interaction with others, these children are often apprehensive and anxious interacting with others. Since over 80% of new learning comes from social learning (watching, copying, and following the lead of others), it is important that we identify the interaction style that works best with your child. The style of relating with the child that helps him feel safe, accepted, and engaging.

Does your child respond best to an animated, jolly approach, or better to a slow, gentle approach? Does your child crave physical contact, or avoid it with a passion? There can be several different comfort zones for the child: (1) the personal interaction style they feel most comfortable with, (2) the amount of social stimulation they can handle at one time before being overwhelmed, (3) the type of social activity (one on one, group of two or three, larger group activities) they can comfortably process, and (4) level of participation (passively watch, follow along, actively participate, or lead) the child can comfortably handle. Besides for sensory issues, social demands are the next greatest stressor for those on the spectrum. Please identify and respect their comfort zones in these areas.


This comfort zone has to do with the general flexibility in emotionally adjusting to variability, novelty, and change around them. It includes how your child experiences and handles his own emotions. Many children have very poor emotional regulation. They get upset very easily, escalate very quickly, and take a long time to calm down. They often are scared of their emotions, and can get overwhelmed very easily. They go from 0-100 quickly, often in situations that present minimal frustration. It is important to know how your child responds to his emotions, and what are the best ways to calm and sooth him. In addition, some of the children are very scared of the emotional reactions from others. If others are upset, agitated, or being criticized, the child may act as if the emotional reactions are theirs. They become upset at any intense emotion coming from those around them. The people important in your child’s life need to know what helps him feel “safe” emotionally, and what to avoid in order to keep him feeling “safe.”


Autism is an “information processing difference”. Every child on the spectrum has difficulty processing multiple information simultaneously. Much of what we process intuitively, at a subconscious level, children on the spectrum have to process consciously. This can be very taxing and mentally draining. The children each have different thresholds on how much and how fast the information can come before they hit “information overload.” Many children have delayed information processing and need to have information presented visually, sequenced out in small portions at a time, and given more time to process it.

Many children have auditory processing problems, and do better with visual information (pictures, written directions, demonstration, etc.). If the teaching doesn’t match their processing style, then they will often pull back and shut down. It is important to know how much information your child can be processed at one time, what their best learning style is, how often they need breaks to rebound, and what strategies help calm and organize them for learning. We must protect the child from becoming mentally drained and overwhelmed. Know how to give it, how much to give, how fast to give it, to keep learning fun.


This comfort zone has to do with the child’s ability to handle uncertainty, not over react with panic, and to rebound quickly once agitated. The more rigid and inflexible the children are the greater degree of familiarity and control they need. For children with weak flexibility, they need strong structure with very predictable routine. Uncertainty scares them extensively, and they will panic when things don’t match their expectations. They do not feel competent tackling the normal snags that occur in their daily routine. They will demand to control everything around them to feel safe. So, it is important to define what degree of certainty has to be built into your child’s life to feel comfortable. What type of uncertainty, novelty, and new learning can they handle? Do they need rigid routines to feel safe? Does novelty scare them? Do they need to lead everything to feel secure? What degree of certainty do they need to feel safe and secure? It is important to know what rituals and routines help them feel safe and secure, and how much you can stretch them at one time.

Children have a variety of other comfort zones that are very important to them feeling “safe, accepted and competent. You as their parent can best identify these comfort zones and advocate for others to know and respect them. It is very important that as a parent, and strongest advocate for your child, you define your child’s comfort zones so that all people working with him can understand what your child is comfortable with, what his fears are, and how to help them feel “safe, accepted, and competent.” It is very important that you provide teachers, therapists, and any support persons with this information and then demand that they respect the child’s comfort zones. If you don’t, everyone will be guessing at what is appropriate for the child, often demanding that they conform to their expectations, and pushing the child into “panic” or “shut-down” mode.

Appendix B provides a “Comfort Zones Profile” that you can use to help define your child’s comfort zones, what vulnerabilities to avoid, and how to engage, teach, and sooth your child when upset. Please take the time to fill this profile out and provide it to all the important people (teacher, therapists, support staff, relatives, etc.) in your child’s life. Start where the child feels safe, respect his vulnerabilities, and help him feel competent slowly stretching these comfort zones. Keep it simple, stretch slowly, and continually redefine the child’s comfort zones. They will feel safe, accepted, and competent learning and growing!


The Comfort Zone profile that is mentioned above can be found by going to the Facebook link where the above is posted.  Click HERE to go to the post and find the Comfort Zone Profile. (You may have to like the page before seeing it, but it is definitely a page worth following.)

 What do you know about your child's comfort zone?  Share with us below!

Heather S. was introduced to the Autism Discussion Page this weekend and loves everything she has read so far.

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