04 Feb 2020

How a traffic light and pans can help

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Traffic light In the past I have followed the necessary therapies to cope with my depression. One of those therapies was to make a so-called signalling plan. This is a plan in which you have to write down what you and your surroundings can notice about your state of mind. Often this is made with a traffic light. People who have been in treatment for depression themselves may already have an idea how this works.

Traffic light on green

There are several stages in which you can classify yourself. These are the colours of a traffic light; green, yellow and red. As explained to me, the green phase is the stable phase, the phase in which you feel good. Nowadays I am usually here. The other colors are less and less stable or “good”. The redder you are, the worse you are. Although it is usually clear to yourself that you are doing worse than normal, this is not always clear to those around you. The purpose of a signalling plan is to make this clear to the people around you. The phases look different for everyone. For example, one person will like to watch TV, while another will like to watch TV when things are not going as well.


I found the traffic light system difficult at first. It was a system that I did my best to fill in at the time, but sometimes it was difficult to determine whether I was doing something that only happened in one phase. Some things I did when things didn’t go well with me, but also when things went terribly wrong with me.

That’s where the so-called “pan system” came into play. This was visually explained to me with a pan on the stove. If you have the fire too high, you run the risk that the pan boils over. But before that happens, there are plenty of signs to warn you. If you manage to intervene in time, you can prevent the pan from boiling over.

This system works with five phases instead of three. This makes the system more precise than the traffic light, but also more difficult to fill in. Especially when you, like I did back then, have trouble estimating your own emotions.

It was easier to describe the “outer” phases, the phases that stand for peace and crisis. The phases in between are a lot more difficult. But with the pan system, these phases are represented by an image of a pan. This helped me to determine what to write down. The system of the pans is also used in the therapy of borderline I have been told.

The pans

What other people can see of you

Of course this is different for everyone, but writing down your behaviour helps your environment enormously. That it requires you to know yourself is not entirely correct, if you at least have someone to help you make such a plan. People can help you by describing what kind of behavior they see in you. If you can then determine how you felt at that moment, you can then describe this behavior in your plan.

I think this part is one of the most important parts of the plan. Regardless of whether you use the traffic light method or the pans system, you describe not only how you feel (something that is difficult enough already), but also how someone else can see that in you. This can be very helpful for your surroundings, without you actually noticing it. I myself often ran into the point that people would keep stimulating me if I felt very bad. At that moment it was often the case that I wanted to, but didn’t have the energy to do something. As a result, I became disappointed in myself again and felt worse again.

By writing down how you behave in the different phases of the system you use, others can better see how you are doing. I think this helps autistic people even better than neurotypical people, because our brains work very differently. You can describe behaviour that may be described as very strange for others, but which is normal for you. Or behaviour that is abnormal for you to do, while not being noticed by those around you.

What can you do with it?

Part of the signalling plan (and that’s why it’s a plan) is how to get back to the “ calm “ phase. So what can you do yourself, but also what your environment can do for you. What are the things you do to calm down? What are actions that people around you can do to make you calm(er)? Do you want to be touched or not? Are there people who can calm you down (for example by calling or chatting) or are there animals that can help you? Which situations or actions need to be avoided? And so on and so forth…

All these questions (and more) can be asked and answered in a signalling plan. This part is one of the parts you can then discuss with people around you. It then became clear to me that in some phases I could use a hug, but if I was “too high up in my pans” you shouldn’t touch me anymore. Because of the behavior I showed in “high pans” (turning inwards, not making contact with the people around me anymore) it became clear that some people could still reach me, while others had to leave me alone.

Of course these systems taught me to process and cope with depression. Looking at my meltdowns and over-stimulation now, I think this is a system that can be valuable for autistic people. In the form of what people around you can do or not do.

Very personal

A signalling plan is very personal. The most comprehensive plan is very intimate and will not be easy to share. It doesn’t have to be. In my opinion it is best to “undress” and censor this most detailed plan in order to share it with others you are less intimate with, such as an employer, friends or acquaintances. But, even if it is only for yourself, making an extensive overview for yourself can be very helpful.

Giving an explanation Especially if you can use it to give signals to people around you without the whole world immediately understanding what you mean. For example, consider that you are at a party with your partner or parents. It’s very cosy and busy… Very busy… Too busy… And you want to indicate that it’s too much for you, but you don’t want everyone at the party to know right away that things are going wrong with you. Then you can say to your partner or parents, “I feel like going to pan 4, can we leave?”

Also, they’d better see how you’re doing by just being yourself. For example, if you have included in your plan that if you twist your thumbs a lot, you feel very uncomfortable, they may react. They can also point out behaviour that makes them suspect that you are not doing well. I myself often had the problem that I couldn’t estimate which phase I was in. Because of the fact that people could ask me, “You seem to be rather introverted, that’s a sign that you’re not doing so well. Do you want to have a one on one talk?” I learned to recognize better and better how I was doing.

A signalling plan was never set in stone. It’s always your own plan. And it’s adaptable. If something before always seemed to help, but now it doesn’t, you can change it. Or if you find out something new, you can write it down.

Why would you make something like that when you’re okay?

It’s easier to think about what you’re doing when you can think about it quietly. Drawing up a signalling plan is difficult if you don’t know what your behaviour is in different phases from calm to crisis. But if you’re doing well, I think it’s better to think about it.

If you’re generally doing well, and you don’t have any problems calming yourself down, you may not need to make such a plan. Still, it can lead to insights for your surroundings. It can help you in social interactions with your environment. If they know what the characteristics are that you show when things are not going well with you, they can respond better to you. It might even prevent them from contributing to a meltdown.

For parents, it can be a means to clearly write down how to deal with their child in different situations, for example at school. The teacher has then been given some sort of manual and may be able to act better. This helps everyone. And again; not all details need to be shared with a person. This is up to the autistic person to determine what people do or do not know. I have to say, the more people know, the better they can act. If they don’t know a signal, they can’t react to it.

But why do we “have to” do this and neurotypical people don’t?

Manual for people In my opinion, making a signalling plan is something everyone should do. If only it gives you more insight into your own behavior and emotions, it’s not specific to neurodiverse people. A signalling-plan can work for everyone. It is a fact that autistic people more often encounter problems because the environment does not understand them or acts incorrectly. That’s why I think that making a signalling plan can help us more.

It is also a fact that neurotypical people already understand each other better. They see how they are doing with each other. These signals are very similar to their own. But because the signals of neurodiverse people can (very) different from their own, they sometimes misinterpret them. For years, for example, “stimming” has been seen as behaviour that indicates that someone is doing badly. Although for some autistic people it is true that the stimming becomes more intense when things get worse, it does not necessarily mean that it always goes bad. It can also very well be a sign of peace and contentment.

Because the signals are sometimes difficult for neurotypical people to understand, it can be very useful to give an explanation. The section “What to do” can also be very helpful in calming autistic people down when they are under stress. It helps parents of autistic people to get a better understanding of a school for behaviour. Or of their environment.

It has helped me to be able to explain to those around me what does and does not work. What behaviour means to me and what can be done by them if I show certain behaviour. It can also reassure people, behaviour that they saw as negative I can explain better now.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get such a plan from everyone? That we could explain all the interaction with each other through such a manual? For me it would…

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme depressie gedachtes meltdown overprikkeling positief kinderen 
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David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

I have my own podcast (in Dutch) about autism and neurodiversity! Checkout the AutCast!

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  1. Mijn zoon vind stoplicht geweldig .heeft er zelfs een kleur bij gezet ( geel). Word het hem te veel roept die oranje .en loopt de klas uit. De bedoeling is dat hij dan naar een kamertje loopt waar hulp zit. Hij meld zich .en hij gaat rennen op het schoolplein met hulp er bij