I spent some time away at Nova’s Ark this past March Break and again for two weeks this summer. To say that I learned a lot would a be huge understatement, because the culmination of my experiences there have profoundly impacted me.

How does a mental health oasis sound to you? Hopefully, good, as that’s what it was like being at Nova’s Ark for me. I was able to retreat from the stress of my daily life and get away to a place that encouraged me to think about and reflect upon my emotions. It was also a place that I felt comfortable to be myself and to focus on the things that I wanted to focus on.

The Zones of Regulation

I learned about The Zones of Regulation, “a concept to help [people] learn how to self-regulate. The Zones of Regulation creates a system to categorize how the body feels and emotions into four coloured zones with which people can easily identify”.


Skilled and carefully trained teachers and mentors helped me to articulate how I was feeling, to recognize my triggers, and to help develop my ‘toolbox’ for coping strategies. It sounds easy when I say it like that, but the reality is that figuring this stuff out is quite complex. As someone on the autism spectrum, I already struggle at putting words to how I’m feeling and what to do in stressful situations, so I felt like I had a lot to learn about how the zones applied to my life.


One of the first things I applied to my daily life was using my ‘toolbox’ of coping strategies. This was the easiest list to develop because I had already been implementing many of them in my life over a number of years  (if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today) and so it was just a matter of being more intentional and proactive with my ‘toolbox’.

Zones = Rainbow

The next thing I learned is that The Zones of Regulation are not ONLY four colours, regardless of how much easier that would be, and I recognized that it’s much more complex.

This picture I drew gave me insight into how I interpret the zones. Think of this as a cross-section of my brain and the various sections represent the different parts of the brain, such as thinking, motor functions, sensory input etc.  First off, there’s four basic colours: blue, green, yellow, and red. However, there are blends, shades, and brightness of these colours that would make it appear more like a rainbow.Zones of Regulation


Between yellow zone and red zone, there’s an orange zone and sometimes this better describes where I am at better than yellow or red could.  Between green zone and yellow zone, there’s lighter green colour with some yellow mixed in etc. You can see in the picture that red and yellow have combined to form orange or blue and red have blended to make purples and pinks.


Even with one colour, such as red, there’s a variance in shades (from light to dark) and being able to differentiate between the shades within a zone is super helpful. The shades apply all the basic colours, plus the ones in-between (like orange, purple, and pink).


Each colour is also expressed in its degree of brightness and how much space it takes up in my ‘brain’. In addition to light and dark sections in my brain, there are also narrow and thick sections too. I would argue that thick, dark red sections are far worse than  narrow, light red sections because of the intensity and the length that those bands represent. The darker sections are more problematic from an emotional perspective because it can be harder and take longer to recover from going into a thick, dark red zone. The coping strategies and tools in my box need to reflect the wide variety of zones within my brain and body.

The Green Zone

If you look again at the picture, you’ll see a diagonal band of green ‘brain’ that goes across the whole frame and all the other colours are intersecting with it. The green zone is my default state (and I would assume that for most people), but continuously throughout the day my brain is being challenged (or attacked) by various sensory, emotional, social, and physical inputs and I have to use the coping strategies in my ‘toolbox’ to regulate my responses. I cannot stop the external influx of stimuli to my brain, but I can internally help myself by using coping strategies.  For example, sometimes my eyes are sensitive to the lights and my brain starts to go into the yellow zone because it’s an uncomfortable stimuli, but then I wear sunglasses to cope and my brain is no longer stressed and goes back into the green zone.

Parts of the Brain

I think that different parts of the brain and body can be in different zones at any given time. For example, my body might go into the blue zone if I’ve just finished playing sports, so it’ll be tired, but my mind might still be in the green zone because that’s a part of my brain that wasn’t stressed. I’m sure you can think of other examples of when a certain part of your body or brain are in different zones; this obviously adds a layer of complexity to figuring out triggers and coping strategies. There’s no predetermined time-limit of how long a particular part of your brain will remain in a certain zone or even how long it will take me to recover back to the green zone. Recognizing the transition from zone-to-zone is still something I am working on and it was helpful to be around skilled observers that would communicate clues to me throughout the day.

How Zones Help Me

Learning about The Zones of Regulation has helped me to better identify and articulate my feelings. This process has also help me refine my coping strategies to be more effective and therefore my quality of life has increased. Being in a supportive learning environment incubated my learning and allowed me to practice without failing, and this in turn has given me more confidence to face my daily challenges. I think that most people want to live well and if given the opportunity to learn and grow, they seize that moment with the hopes of becoming a better version of themselves. Another coping strategy that helps me is being around animals and Nova’s Ark provided that opportunity for me. Over the course of the few weeks that I was there, I got to know Ewok (a kinkajou) and we are kind of ‘friends’ and he loves to snuggle. My time at Nova’s Ark has left a positive impact on my mental health and I experienced relief knowing that the problems that I encounter with my emotions are, at worst, temporary and at best, solvable. Having the space and time to process my learning from Nova’s Ark has been and will continue to be a tremendous asset in my daily life; I cannot wait to go back!




Spoon Theory & Autism

Happy New Year! A lot has been on my mind since my last post (a while ago) and I want to take some time today to share with you all.

Perhaps you’ve heard of something called, “Spoon Theory”? Its origin can be traced back to Christine Miserandino (The Spoon Theory), a woman living with lupus, who takes the time to explain to her friend what it ‘feels’ like to live with a chronic illness. She further articulates that, “…the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to…a gift most people take for granted”. Even though her friend logically understood the physical symptoms of lupus, she was unable to grasp the daily impact of lupus on Christine’s life. Thus Spoon Theory was born,  

“[t]he spoon theory is a disability metaphor used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. Spoons are an intangible unit of measurement used to track how much energy a person has throughout a given day. Each activity requires a given number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person “recharges” through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished”. (Spoon Theory_Wikipedia). 

I think this is a concise definition, however I’d like to explain ‘spoons’ in the context of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and how it relates to me.


Spoon Theory as explained by Christina Miserandino

My last blog post was titled, Know your limit. Play within it. and I am beginning to really understand the interaction between knowing my limits (# of spoons/day) and actually playing within them (rationing my spoons to last a full day). The latter is something that I struggle with daily, especially since ASD is an invisible disability and I can usurp the ‘system’ and pretend like I’m NT; this nevertheless results in costing me more spoons and I’ve had to learn some very hard lessons along the way. Each day I ‘receive’ (not literally) a finite number of spoons and the quantity and quality of the spoons varies greatly. I can greatly empathize and identify with Cynthia Kim from Musings of an Aspie, when she explains what’s in her “spoon drawer” and how it affects her daily life.


Cynthia Kim’s Spoon Drawer

In my life, I must count the cost of work, social, home, and family obligations by prioritizing what ‘needs’ to get done that day, then I move on to evaluate if I have any leftover spoons. Since I’ve started teaching, the number of spoons I use up daily has increased, as a larger proportion of spoons are used up for work and the number of remaining spoons has significantly decreased. There are moments where I’ve not counted the cost of spoons needed for my day and have ‘run out’; unfortunately this has resulted in either a meltdown or a shutdown from being too overstimulated (see ‘High Functioning’ Autism: Social Energy & Overstimulation for more details). I am getting smarter at using strategies to help me manage my day well, for example, I use alarms on my phone throughout the day at work to prompt me of things that need to happen (starting/ending class on time, yard duty, meetings, planning etc.). These alarms help reduce the quantity of “Executive Function Spoons” needed for each day, as it frees up other spoons that serve as ‘buffer’ spoons (spoons that I don’t want to use unless it is an emergency). My goal for 2017 is to better refine my skills at being able to identify the cost of certain activities; it won’t be perfect, nor do I expect it to be and it will be a challenge to stay within my limits because that sometimes means missing out on fun things (and who doesn’t want to have fun?). The reality is that some activities simply cost me too much and unfortunately, I end up paying for it that same day and/or the following day. This past year, I’ve definitely grown in my understanding of my limits and how disrespecting them is detrimental to my mental health. I hope to focus on respecting my limits so I can stay comfortably within them.

Cynthia makes some excellent points by reminding her readers that:

“One strategy that I think sometimes autistic people forget exists is borrowing someone else’s spoons by asking for help.”

As much as I strive to be independent, there’s no denying that life is easier (and more fun) by being part of a community. This community could be composed of family, friends, mentors, or counsellors and each fulfilling a different role, with varying degrees of intensity . The point is that, we all need help from time to time, and it is comforting to know that there are people out there that care and that it is okay to ask for help.


Letting go of the fantasy that I can do everything I want all the time has been the hardest to accept. Cognitively I understand my limits, however having the strength of character to make wise choices for my daily life is what’s most important. It is okay to let go of things and in fact, your life will be better off because of it. Cynthia Kim is a woman with ASD (or Asperger’s, just like me) and so I’ll close with her words, as I think she explains it best:

“And finally, the hard one: let go. Sometimes, no matter how elaborately I structure, change, accommodate, plan and think about conserving my spoons, I’m forced to admit that something important will still have to go. This is really tough to face.”


“Know your limit. Play within it.”

This phrase might be OLG’s tagline, but I totally love it, and is a great line to help scaffold coping strategies for my life. I see my ‘limit’ as my capacity and as various boundaries that must be maintained, and how intense I can ‘play’, as my stamina. As a person with ASD, I have learned that my capacity for processing environmental and emotional stimulation is smaller than most; therefore I need to be more cognizant of when my coping strategies fail and my shutdown begins. Life is dynamic and a teaching position I started this past September has forced me to further develop my abilities and discernment of novel situations. It has been a steep learning-curve and I thought university was hard! (it still is lol)

Over the past few months (or more), I have been silent on this blog because I felt I had nothing to offer on this topic; I also saw that I needed to hone my skills at coping more successfully before I could ever talk about it. Whether you disagree or not, I would like to further explain…

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‘High Functioning’ Autism: Social Energy & Overstimulation

Have you heard of the Curly Hair Project?

… probably not and that’s okay because I’d love to tell you about it!  The Curly Hair Project (CHP) “aims to help women and girls with Asperger’s Syndrome and their neurotypical loved ones communicate and understand each other better.” Alis Rowe, the creator of CHP has Asperger’s and she loves to communicate to others how being on the spectrum affects her daily life and engage them in conversation. Alis feels “…her purpose is to [help others] describe their daily life experiences and challenges, in a clear and quirky way.” I was introduced to this online via a Facebook group run by the same organization and memes are often posted that frequently resonate with my own experiences with Asperger’s.

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What’s Art Got to Do With It?

When I was a kid, I hated art & crafts and much preferred sports…the concept of sitting still and focusing on a single task was a challenge for me; specifically, having someone tell me to follow certain steps to produce a final piece was a huge drawback for me and I always felt more comfortable doing my own thing.  I thought ‘doing art’ was more about conforming to others expectations and less about personal expression; how I was mistaken for so many years is beyond me!

I’ve always been drawn to beautiful things and who isn’t, am I right? I love spending time outdoors and love the wide spectrum of colours displayed in nature; specifically I love sunsets and I’d probably enjoy sunrises too, but I don’t wake up early enough!

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One thing’s for certain: nothing is ever certain. No matter how many times I acknowledge this fact, the uncertainty of life, certainly impacts my daily life and sometimes causes moments of deep pain. Expectations versus reality are perpetually in tension as I go about my day, often ranging from the most mundane to the most traumatic and always leaving me battling it out at various times. Life is hard, that is for sure, and being a student adds a whole other layer of complexity, but it also is very predictable, structured, and certain. I know what I need to do each day, what is expected of me, and even know all the assignments I’ll be doing months in advance; I like that feeling because it is secure. Other aspects of school aren’t so comforting and when am stressed, I believe my perseverance to see it through the hard times, has shaped me to be the more resilient person I am today. I am not the type of person to give up easily because I desperately want to feel better and to be happy.

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