Co-regulation and Social Referencing: family fun and autism ‘intervention

Yesterday I headed off  with my three guys (The Amazing Craig, H, and Finnegan the Labradoodle) to a wonderful lake that we love to frequent in the summer months. Last week we hiked around it – this week we decided that a canoe trip was a good plan for accessing the mica-sparkled white granite beach on the far side.

The weather was perfect, we were well protected with sunscreen and PFDs (life-jackets), and we set sail (or perhaps more dipped in the paddles) with air of confidence. We have done this particular trip many times, but the difference this time was that we brought a third paddle: one for H to use.

H, seated in the middle of the canoe, with Craig at the stern and me at the bow, had a number of responsibilities during the trip across the lake. He had to encourage the dog to stay seated, and counterbalance the canoe if the dog made a sudden shift to one side or another  – which is an unsettling but common occurrence for our lake-drinking, bubble-lapping hound. H had to keep an eye on Finnegan, work to anticipate his moves, and carefully shift his weight in the opposite direction of the dog’s impulsive lunge.

Additionally, H worked with us to paddle for the first time, and he tried very hard to coordinate his strokes with mine. I could assist with this – but really only in a minor way, as my back was to him. The effort it took for our guy to watch and match the timing of my stroke was incredible. At first he was completely unable to coordinate his action with mine, and then as we encouraged him, and he gained an understanding of what was required, he improved dramatically.

Co-regulation, and social referencing are skills that can be challenging for a child on the Autism spectrum. H does not naturally pace himself to others in activities. Reading the nonverbal cues to coordinate the actions with another are difficult. Even walking along-side someone, and regulating his pace to that of another, has been a skill he has learned at a cognitive rather than at an intuitive level.

It was interesting also that this experience gave H an opportunity to share with us some of the canoeing tips he had learned at summer camp. He was certainly proud to tweak our paddling technique: he encouraged us to submerge more of the paddle on our strokes for greater efficiency.

While paddling across the lake we had a great discussion about team work and co-regulation. We also made much better time with a third paddler, and it was exciting to feel the speed and the lift of the boat when the action was perfectly coordinated. I am certain the metaphor that teamwork makes for smoother sailing will likely be useful in the future to support the ongoing development and social understanding for our child.

I guess for me this was another reminder of the learning that can happen in and amongst every-day moments or experiences with this wonderful boy…


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
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1 Response to Co-regulation and Social Referencing: family fun and autism ‘intervention

  1. Di says:

    I loved this. We also have a place to go…. my best is being out on the dam with my boy! Good idea re the paddle, something for me to aim for!


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