“Calm down! There’s nothing to get upset about.” If only it were that easy!
S.T.O.P. and Relax©, a visual curriculum for teaching yoga-based exercises and relaxation techniques to individuals with ASD, makes the experience of relaxation available to those who may never have known how it feels to be peaceful. Developed by autism educators, a school psychologist and a yoga teacher, S.T.O.P. and Relax© introduces this calming experience without complex language or complex reasoning.
S.T.O.P. and Relax© begins with the recognition that stress itself interferes with thinking and promotes inflexible, automatic reactions. Relaxation is fundamental to self-regulation, flexibility, and adaptive decision-making. This is inherent in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system as it shifts between the “fight/flight” state and a state of calm.
The skills learned through S.T.O.P. and Relax© support children’s success at school and in the community. S.T.O.P. and Relax©promotes skills relevant to mastering IEP goals pertaining to self-control. Mastery of relaxation and self-calming skills makes a child less vulnerable to sensory stimuli and less reactive to unexpected or unfamiliar events. Children learn to avert stress episodes and maintain composure.
Children and teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are highly vulnerable to escalating stress and anxiety. The triggers vary from everyday sensory input (the sound of a vacuum cleaner) to situational events (outdoor recess canceled). The child’s anxiety and agitation may result in challenging behaviors, ranging from complaints, protests, and withdrawal to tantrums, aggression, and “meltdowns.” Often it is difficult to soothe the child, especially after he or she begins to spiral out of control, recovering composure only after becoming physically exhausted.
Stress episodes interrupt a child’s learning and social engagement. Sometimes, for some children, the behaviors associated with these episodes present a danger to self or others.
S.T.O.P. and Relax© differs from other interventions that aim to help children with ASD manage stress by organizing the practice of relaxation and self-calming into accessible cues and lessons. Developed in 2001 and updated in 2010, S.T.O.P. and Relax©builds upon the work of Dr. Herbert Benson (author of The Relaxation Response), June Groden (The Groden Network), Carol Gray (Social StoriesTM), and the TEACCH center’s use of structured teaching approaches and visual cues. The 2009 National Standards Report (National Autism Center) supports the effectiveness of methods integrated within S.T.O.P. and Relax©: progressive relaxation, modeling, visual prompts, and story-based intervention. The importance of yoga as a component of S.T.O.P. and Relax© is supported by Dr. Benson’s work; also, yoga lends itself to modeling, visual cues, and structured practice.
Skills are broken down into simple steps that gradually increase in difficulty, according to the level of the child. Cues integrated throughout the program enhance the child’s responsiveness. Ultimately, the child is able to create a relaxed response by using the ‘S.T.O.P.’ procedure.
S.T.O.P. and Relax© is relevant for school systems seeking evidence-based interventions that maximize academic achievement. Teachers have reported that after a S.T.O.P. and Relax© session, children are better able to focus and complete assignments. The skills acquired through S.T.O.P. and Relax© support students’ participation in the instructional setting, so that they remain on-task and engaged in learning. Moreover, many children and teens with ASD are required to take high-stakes tests that determine their futures. The calming skills learned through S.T.O.P. and Relax© reduce students’ test anxiety and increase their cooperation, focus and stamina for test-taking. For this reason, the pilot project for S.T.O.P. and Relax© was initiated in an elementary school in Broward County, Florida, during the first academic year that children in self-contained classes for ASD were required to take the state achievement test.
Children who regularly practice S.T.O.P. and Relax© generalize their skills. Parents have observed their children implement S.T.O.P. and Relax© exercises during situations such as waiting for a late school bus, or self-calming before sleep. A child with ASD went to the dentist for impressions of her teeth. After two unsuccessful attempts, she independently went through the four-step ‘S.T.O.P.’ sequence and was able to remain calm throughout the procedure. Teachers report children adjusting their breathing or posture independently during stressful situations in class. The children’s spontaneous actions demonstrate that S.T.O.P. and Relax© supports their capacity to self-monitor, implement relaxation techniques, avert stress episodes, and make productive, constructive choices.
The success of instructors and children underscores the mission of S.T.O.P. and Relax©:
“Our Vision is for every child to enjoy the gift of relaxation and have self-control skills to manage stress.”