Behavior Week: Sensory Behaviors

Categories: Resources

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!).

Monday: Identifying Target Behaviors and Function (you gotta know where to start right?)

Tuesday: Attention Maintained Behaviors (every classroom has some of this… you now who I’m talking about)

Wednesday: Escape Maintained Behaviors (what crafty and clever things are you students doing to get out of work and how can we stop it?)

Thursday: Sensory Behaviors (let’s delve into the whole wonderful world of scripting, stimming, and more)

Friday: Behavior Management Freebies and more!


  1. I have just started reading your blog and appreciate the honesty of the struggles, successes, and suggestions! I am a Sunday school teacher with two of my Sunday school kids having Autism. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with oral sensory stimulation? We’ve been having issues with spitting and putting things in the mouth that are not safe or sanitary.

  2. Thanks for reading! Oral sensory stimulation is hard. I did this post on sensory behaviors:

    I use gum a lot for mouthing issues – this can be an easy/cheap way to cut down on that. There are some specific oral stimulation ‘chew toys’ that the catalog Abilitations sells – however I’m not the biggest fan of those because I think it can quickly get super unhygienic and can be stigmatizing. If you have no other option those may work though.

    You could maybe use a time based token economy to provide reinforcement for a lack of putting items in mouth. Ie. every minute or two that the child does not put items in their mouth they earn a token and can then cash tokens in for a ‘special treat’ – if they do put an item in their mouth, they lose a token.

    Hope this helps!

  3. i just found your blog/tpt store and i absolutely love it! can you tell me what type of prizes/reinforcers you use with your students? my school is very anti-edibles or extrinsic rewards which makes behavior management really really hard! any suggestions you might have for an interval type intervention would be so helpful! thank you for writing!

  4. Hi Jessica!

    I know a lot of people are anti-edibles but sometimes that is the only thing that works! Children with autism are not always motivated by things like praise, grades, and teacher approval. I always pair edibles with praise (to condition that as a reinforcer) and we only use TINY pieces of food (like one cheetoh for a whole task) – maybe if you explain that to your administration? Other big reinforcers are technology of course (ipad, ipod, computer), break time, coloring, gum, sensory toys (slinky, mushy balls, etc.) and games. I have a bunch of visual choice boards that I let kids pick from.

    Regarding interval type interventions – I LOVE them. We do tons of these in my room. For some students I combine this with a token economy – after each set time interval (some kids use a timer themselves, we use a class visual timer, it’s based on an activity/class period, or I time it) either with all ‘good’ behavior or lack of any specific ‘bad’ behavior (I use these interventions to decrease scripting, hands in mouth, self injurious behavior, etc.) the student will earn a point or a token. At the end of the day (at several points in the day) students can cash in the tokens to earn a reinforcer. This could cut down on edibles a little. Start small on these (short time interval and ‘cheap’ reinforcers) and build up!

    Sorry so long! Hope this makes sense 🙂

  5. Hello! I really love your blog! I have a question regarding your scripting intervention. I would like to try it with one of my students but I’m not sure how to introduce the idea to him or what to say to verbally prompt him. What phrases/words did you use to introduce the idea of refraining from scripting? Also, what did you say or do when he did script before his interval was over or how did you correct him?

  6. I tried to define scripting in a way he understood. We called it “bad talking”. And we wrote out what things were “bad talking” and what things were and practiced a lot. We did loads of discrimination training. When he started scripting, I would alert him to and say – you were “bad talking” and he had to reset his timer and restart the interval. We’d usually say something encouraging/positive – like don’t worry try again. Hope this helps & let me know how it goes!

  7. Thank you I had the same idea as a parent, with two master degrees in different concentrations. Scripting is the only behavior and seems to be controllable and related to stress. I’m not sure why you figured this out and my twins are 11 and no one else has…you should brag more! It’s a real victory.

  8. Haha! Thanks for reading 🙂

  9. I am having a hard time with a student who enjoys ripping paper. I normally don’t mind, i have a paper bin in my office with paper he is allowed to rip. However, his aggressive behaviors are very elevated at the moment as he is on an anti-seizure medication (I’m talking needing regular restraints for biting and attacking other students and staff), and the classroom teacher is burnt out. She is unable to provide the amount of paper he needs since he often tears classmates work, rips posters off walls and bulletin boards etc. Have you had any success in finding replacement or alternative behaviors to ripping? He is very sensory seeking, but ripping is the big thing for him..

  10. Does he have a specific bin of paper in his classroom that he can rip from? Maybe you can you that behavior as a reinforcer. Depending on his baseline data of aggression, you could set a specific time interval and for every interval hit with no aggression he can rip paper? Check out this post: Also does he have a method to request ripping paper? If it is causing aggression, I would give consistent access to it.

  11. Hi Freddie!

    My son also loves ripping paper, and I was like you, having a hard time keeping up with the amount of paper he needed

    One day I tried putting a youtube video – ASMR Paper Ripping Tearing Sounds (No Talking) – there are so many! – we first did it on the tv, and now we are using Bluetooth headsets with just the sound

    Turns out he loved the sound more than the action!

    I know is probably very late for the suggestion

    Hope it all went better for your student and the teacher

  12. I haven’t had a student who seems to like ripping paper, however, I do brain breaks wherein they can dance/move, talk, or draw. I will offer ripping paper as a sensory activity along with other toys.

    • Thanks for sharing!


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