If you work with children with autism, you know what I’m talking about when I mention sensory behaviors. It’s part of the diagnostic criteria of autism – stereotyped and repetitive behaviors. This can look different in every child – stimming, flapping, swaying, clapping, lining up items, scripting… the list can go on and on. These behaviors can be tricky to work on because they provide the child with some type internal reinforcement – that we really can control or have access to. It’s not like with attention or escape behaviors where you can just take away attention or escape.
First off, some things to consider:
How disruptive is the behavior? A little flapping never hurt anyone. Only target behaviors that are potentially dangerous, extremely disruptive, or limits the child’s opportunities for inclusion/socialization.
Observe the behavior: think about what exactly is reinforcing about the behavior. Is the visual stimulation (watching his hands flap in front of his face), the auditory stimulation (the sound of the movement), or the physical stimulation (how it feels).
The main way to target sensory behaviors is to see if you can think of an alternative responses. Some type of response that in some way meets those same sensory needs. This is why sensory toys/activities are so popular and effective for kids with autism. The abilitations catalog has countless sensory items and it can also give you ideas for things you can make on your own (if you don’t have a ginormous budget).
provide your student access to a range of sensory toys and activities to see what he/she gravitate towards
incorporate regular sensory breaks into your day – include them on your schedule
create visuals for the commonly used sensory toys so your student can ask for it.
create mini ‘sensory activities’ that can be used beyond the classroom – small fidgets that can be brought into the community, inclusion classrooms, and home
My favorite strategy: let your student ‘work for’ the sensory behavior (if it’s not dangerous obviously) or the sensory toy. Obviously this activity is reinforcing so might as well maximize on that, right? I have had kids work for tearing paper, beads, play dough, ‘talking time’ (scripting) etc.
Another play on this intervention – designate a specific spot as the ‘sensory spot.’ A certain chair, corner of the room, or part of the carpet where these sensory behaviors are allowed – pending it is not a dangerous behavior of course. If you think about it, we all do sensory behaviors. We twirl our hair, bite our nails, grind our teeth, etc. Not all of these behaviors our bad and our children with autism tend to just have more extreme versions of these behaviors. We don’t need to necessarily get rid of them but rather make them more discrete so they are not disruptive and do not cause the child to be ostracized.
One more intervention I like: providing reinforcement for time intervals WITHOUT the behavior. This can be used more easily with students with more language. Start with a very short time interval – something achievable and provide a very high quality reinforcer (something good people, no stickers) if the interval is completing with no behaviors. I have used visual timers and iPod apps for this.
—- My most successful intervention I have used this for was for a student whose scripting was OUT OF CONTROL. It completing limited his chances for inclusion and was very disruptive to his own learning. We used this intervention starting at 2 minutes. After 2 minutes with no scripting he got a prize. And we made a big ole’ deal about this – praise galore and he loved it. We gradually increased the time – which we again made a big deal over, I called it graduating “You graduated to 4 minutes!” I would get crazy excited over this and you know what? He started increasing the time intervals on his own. Now he does 20 minute intervals where he earns a point and can trade in points at the end of the day (10 points can buy computer, 8 points busy candy, etc.). It has been A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! He went from scripting during 90% of the day to 0%!! Here is his graph – the blue is the percentage of the day he engaged in scripting (sorry for the bragging – but only you all would probably appreciate this!).