We love to see children making strides in their development, no matter what their age. I've had children say their first words at age 16 and I celebrate it just as much as if they were the 'typical' age. What can be a cause for concern is when children lose skills that they previously acquired - this is known as developmental regression. Now, don't panic! This is very common and although you may find it frustrating, there are things you can do when a child appears to regress.
What is Developmental Regression?
A developmental regression is when a child loses developmental skills they’d previously acquired. Typically, social or language skills are lost, but regressions can also affect other skills like sleeping and toileting. Regression is common in children with autism but can also happen in children with a variety of developmental or cognitive disorders or to neurotypical children following a significant trauma or life change.
It is important to note that developmental regression is different to regressive autism. Regressive autism where a child appears to develop typically but then starts to lose speech, social skills or independence skills (typically at 15-30 months) and then go on to be diagnosed with autism later in life.
Signs of Developmental Regression;
Suddenly having accidents after being successfully toilet trained for months
Disruptions to sleep patterns
Loss of language or social skills
What Does This Mean?
If you notice any signs of developmental regression, especially if you know there has been a significant life event, life change or trauma in that child's life recently, then you should know this;
That child is asking for reassurance and support!
Developmental regression can be a way of communicating with trusted adults around them that they need more attention, love, reassurance and support than usual, and when did they used to get that level of support? When they were younger and less independent. Children are crying out for more support, especially following a significant life event, and too often these regressions are actually followed with punishment or pressure for them to return to what they know they can do. This often backfires and can destroy relationships, so taking a gentler approach is best.
What to Do During Developmental Regressions
1. Identify Triggers
If you are supporting an autistic child, triggers often aren't easy to spot. It may be that a child has discovered something new about their world or about themselves and that is quite jarring, so they may regress. Other possibilities may be even small changes to routine as changes in predictable routines and structures can cause significant stress because children with autism need consistency and routine to thrive. What we may consider 'small' changes may actually be very big changes to a child. For example, Dad changing jobs or having to take a different bus to school due to route changes. Bigger changes such as moving house or divorce are a lot easier to spot.
So, if it’s possible, identify the trigger as best you can. It will help you emphasize, validate, and set new routines and expectations.
2. Be Kind
Just because you know a child can use their words or can go to the toilet unaided, during a developmental regression is not the time to apply pressure for them to keep doing these things. Empathise with them and what they are going through, even if you do not see it as a big deal. To them, it is. Validate their feelings and , for children who struggle with labelling emotions, talk them through what they could be feeling.
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Depending on their age, you can use emotional coaching, visual aids, children's books or social stories to help discuss their feelings, emotions and thoughts.
3. Re-Establish Routine
Try to get things back to normal as soon as you can. Structure, routine and consistency are essential. If there has been a major life change, such as divorce or a new baby in the family, try and establish the new routine as quick as you can (though I appreciate this is hard if it is a new baby!) and use visual aids . These visual supports help when teaching and implementing new routines and provide a reference point for your child when they’re looking for reassurance.
4. Get Physical!
Exercise reduces stress and anxiety and following a major life change, children are undoubtedly going to be stressed and anxious. Increases in stimming may also be an indication that children need more physical input, so doing some outdoor activities, home or school workouts or just getting the heart beating more can help relieve some stress.
When a child is feeling heightened emotions, their brain produces high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also produces adrenaline. An increase in cortisol increases anxiety and dysregulation.
When this occurs, functional and social communication skills decrease – because the brain can’t access the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functioning. This leads to meltdowns, causing a massive spike in adrenaline because the fight or flight response is triggered.
Exercise is proven to reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels. It is best to do shorter but more frequent bursts of physical exercise rather than one longer session. Plus, shorter intervals are more fun for kids, and you won’t be as likely to lose their attention.
5. Get Outside
Who doesn't love being outside and enjoying nature? Simply being outside in nature can improve mood and lower stress, so finding more ways to be outside with your child can really help during developmental regression. You could do more outdoor learning, attend forest school, eat meals outside or get them to help with cleaning the garden or playground. This will also help with getting physical!
6. Adjust Your Expectations
For now, adjust your expectations. Even though you know a child can do more than that they currently are, right now, they can't and additional pressure to try will only add to their anxiety and stress. By doing some or all of the things above, you are going to help that child return to a state where they can and feel safe to go back to being themselves.
You cannot discipline or punish a child into re-learning skills lost during a developmental regression. Patience, guidance, and time will help your child redevelop these skills.