Prior to receiving his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder, in December 2011, our then 10-year-old son Corban had been struggling for years with alexithymia (difficulty identifying, describing, and managing his emotions). He especially struggled with the lightning-fast transitions from being calm and even-keeled to a full-fledged meltdown. Not only did we not understand what was happening, he didn’t either. Corban didn’t know how to manage his emotions, which were showing up at school by this point. And until he could identify them and communicate, we couldn’t help.
Once we had his diagnosis and knew what we had to work with, we started thinking about how to give him language that could, first of all, assist him in identifying his feelings and, secondly, give him a way to communicate them–and the transition from one to another–to others. So we developed a simple tool: a three-star system. I cut out three five-pointed stars–8 inches point-to-point–out of green, yellow, and red construction paper. Then I laminated them and attached two-sided adhesive to the back of each. I made a set for home for his bedroom door, and one for school, where he velcro’d them to the front of his desk where his teacher could see them.
The green star indicated “smooth sailing” and was used when he felt calm. The yellow star was put on the door/desk when Corban was experiencing “turbulence” and getting agitated. The red star meant a “meteor shower,” a full-scale meltdown, was imminent.
This three-star method helped him self-monitor his inner world. It gave him language to communicate his status (calm, agitation, or overwhelm) to others. It allowed him to take steps to self-manage. And it allowed us to read the clues and offer help when needed.
Initially, we spent a lot of time changing stars out. We began each day with a green star on his bedroom door, and by noon we would often be on to yellow and red. But within four months we were living primarily in the green-star zone.
When Corban began to get frustrated, confused or anxious, he recognized the agitation and either self-soothed alone in his room or switched his star to yellow for a short time. We got to a point about six months into our three-star system where we were seeing fewer and fewer yellow stars and no red ones. When Corban began 5th grade this year, he decided not to take the stars to school, and he hasn’t needed them. We still check in with Corban frequently to keep the communication open and encourage him to identify and manage his emotions and anxiety.
It’s been almost a year now and these days we talk about how many green-star days we’ve had in a row. We are, in fact, counting green stars. The three-star system was so simple to institute and use. It gave Corban a language to communicate about the confusion inside of him while not requiring him to put feelings into words. And it proved to be a wonderful and effective bridge to calmer waters.