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What is the Low Arousal Approach?

Updated: Nov 12, 2018

The low arousal approach, a concept founded at Studio 3, is now widely practised across the globe. Here's why.

Low arousal approaches have been adopted and taught in many services both in the UK and throughout Europe. This article will provide a brief background to the approach, as well explaining the principles of the approach, including reflective practice and identifying behaviour triggers.

Given that stress is an ever-present part of the lives of people with autism, how should we manage crisis situations where the individuals we support may be experiencing 'meltdown'?

The term 'low arousal' was first used in 1994 (McDonnell, McEvoy & Dearden, 1994). McDonnell (2010) identified four key components considered central to low arousal approaches. These include both

cognitive and behavioural elements:

1. Decreasing staff to client demands and requests so as to reduce potential points of conflict around that individual.

2. Avoidance of potentially arousing triggers (e.g. direct eye contact, touch and removal of spectators to the incident).

3. Avoidance of staff's non-verbal behaviours that may lead to conflict (e.g. aggressive postures and stances).

4. Challenging staff beliefs about the short-term management of challenging behaviours.

Implicit in the approach are two key guiding principles. The first principle is that the approach concentrates on altering our own behaviour in crisis situations. There is now very good evidence which indicates that many challenging behaviours are inadvertently triggered by carers (McDonnell, 2010). A key element is reflective practice (Schon, 1987; McDonnell, 2010). This literally means that a person needs to examine their own contribution to a situation and modify their behaviour accordingly. The second principle involves the concept of trauma-informed behaviour management (McDonnell, 2010). If we view a person as traumatised, it has an impact on how we manage their behaviour. Quite often people who are stressed and traumatised experience panic and need to escape from situations.

In terms of physical interventions, a minimalist approach has been adopted by Studio3 staff. Learn about our low arousal approach training courses here.

For more information on low arousal in general, visit


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