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New Study: Families’ Experiences of the Low Arousal Approach

Findings from a new qualitative study into families’ experiences of implementing the Low Arousal Approach provide an insight into how the approach is used in practice, and the lived experiences of parents and carers.


Image shows a woman (mother) and child (son) sitting face to face on wooden chairs and smiling at one another
Seventeen parents and carers were interviewed about their experiences of the Low Arousal Approach

A recent study from Studio 3 practitioners and associates looked at the impact of the Low Arousal Approach in family contexts. The qualitative study interviewed seventeen parents and carers who had undergone Studio 3 Low Arousal Training, and who were implementing Low Arousal Approaches in their daily lives supporting a family member with distressed behaviours. The interviews sought to gain an insight into what families struggled with in supporting their loved ones, and how they used the Low Arousal Approach in practice and the impact that they felt that this had. This study was an important step for us at Studio 3 to better understand the needs of parents and families supporting children and adults with ASD, learning disabilities, and other conditions which can cause distress. The findings highlight the need to listen to the voices of experts by lived experience, and to learn from parents and carers in order to better our practices, and better support distressed individuals.

Image shows a diagram of the four themes identified in the study, with subthemes underneath. Theme 1: Stress; Subthemes 1.1 External pressures, 1.2 Family Stress, 1.3 Isolation, 1.4 Mother's Stress. Theme 2: Negative Narratives; Subtheme 2.1 Self-criticism, 2.2 Judgements from Professionals, 2.3 Judgements from Society. Theme 3: Empowerment; Subtheme 3.1 Confidence, 3.2 Advocact, 3.3 Evidence, 3.4 Low Arousal "Lifestyle". Theme 4: Managing and Coping; Subtheme 4.1 Crisis Management, 4.2 Avoid Crisis Point, 4.3 Aligned Values, 4.4. Acceptance
Themes identified in families' experiences of the Low Arousal Approach

The results identified four key themes: stress, negative narratives, empowerment, and managing and coping. Families felt that external and internal pressures created stress within the family unit, particularly for the primary caregiver, and that families experienced a sense of isolation and lack of support from the ‘wider system’ around themselves as parents and their child.

“You are feeling stressed that you are going to get fined or moaned at, so you apply that stress then onto your child and then your child… cannot cope with that.”

The parents interviewed also described facing negative narratives around behaviour and parenting from the wider community, including judgements from professionals and society at large. Many felt “very judged a lot of the time” as parents, and that they often had to fight to have their voices heard by professionals and their child’s needs met.

‘Parents expressed that they and their children were rarely met with compassion and understanding of their needs. Parents experienced comments about having to be “harder,” “firmer,” and “in control,” and that there was a requirement for their family member to “fit into the normal world.”’

This in turn led to self-criticism, where parents often blamed themselves for incidents of distress, and felt burdened by the emotional cost of managing crisis incidents.

               Having received training in the Low Arousal Approach, participants felt empowered, more confident, and had more self-belief to both implement the approach, and refute criticism from others. Many experienced training in Low Arousal as an affirmation of their values, and felt that the approach validated what they already felt to be the best way to support their child.

‘One parent said that training “confirmed” her existing “beliefs and ideas,” helping her to “solidify” these, giving her “confirmation that [she] was doing the right thing”. As another parent put it, she “needed that justification… in order to build that confidence.”’

Many reported that the evidence base and knowledge contained within the approach enabled them to engage with professionals, and to gain a greater insight into their own and their child’s behaviours. Increased confidence allowed family members to become a stronger advocate for their loved one, and helped to consolidate their own recognition of their expertise about their child’s needs.

“I feel like actually, I know what I’m talking about now…. I’m the one who has advocacy for my child in my heart, and I’m the one who knows him best.”

Participants described the Low Arousal Approach as a ‘lifestyle’ that they now adopt in day-to-day life, and that the philosophy is now embedded in their thoughts and behaviours:

“It’s more like a style of living rather than we do this as a particular approach. It’s just the way we roll now.”

               Parents also highlighted that the Low Arousal Approach had helped them to manage crises, avoid escalating situations, and accept their loved one’s behaviours from a place of empathy and compassion. Training in Low Arousal led to family members be more understanding of triggers around distressed behaviour, and better able to anticipate and manage crises when they occurred.

‘Parents reflected on the benefit of managing their emotional arousal and how this impacted their family member’s emotions and behaviors: “Firstly, with yourself, keep calm, and it does have an immediate effect on the whole environment or the situation you are trying to deal with”. Parents talked about what their family member’s behaviors may be communicating. One parent discussed “us[ing] the Low Arousal Approach to really figure out what was going on behind… the meltdown”, asking, “What is his behaviour really communicating and what is the purpose of it? And remembering that you cannot teach a person to swim when they are drowning.”’

This was in part due to increased awareness around how their own behaviours and the environment would impact the distressed individual, with many parents asking themselves ‘What is my role in this?’ and reflecting on past incidents. Participants reported positive outcomes from applying the Low Arousal Approach, including improved relationships with family members and aligned values with the wider family unit.

“It’s making life easier for everybody and including all of our family, everybody is very on board, like my extended family they all sort of understand that’s what we need to do to help accommodate my son because he might not be able to handle it, it’s been a life changer”

               This study demonstrates the impact that the Low Arousal Approach has had in enabling families to better support their loved ones with behaviours of concern. Whilst training in Low Arousal Approaches is necessary, but not alone sufficient to achieve behaviour change in its own right, this study shows that an increased sense of empowerment and confidence can help families to successfully manage crises and advocate for their loved ones’ needs. Changing the balance of power from professionals to consumers is a vital next step in order to ensure that distressed individuals receive the right support for them and their unique needs.



Written by Rachel McDermott, Studio 3 Information and Social Media Coordinator


McDonnell, A.A., Page, A., Bews-Pugh, S., Morgalla, K.A., Kaur-Johal, T. and Maher, M. (2024). Families’ experiences of the Low Arousal Approach: a qualitative study. Frontiers in Psychology. 15:1328825. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2024.1328825.


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