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 eliminate or manipulate the consequence. This behaviors will occur when the child is alone. It’s the only type of function that has behaviors that occur without other people involved. That’s not saying that they can’t but the behavior will occur in isolation because the reinforcement is internal and doesn’t require other people.
Everyone has sensory behaviors they engage in. I am a chronic back cracker, hair twirler, and nail picker. These behaviors continue because I get some type of internal satisfaction from engaging in these responses. Am I aware I do these? Not always. Are they harmful? Not really. Could I decrease these behaviors if I needed to? Yep, with some effort. I went to a chiropractor last year who implored me to stop cracking my back so often. I made a really effort and did decrease how often I did it – but it took some focused energy. While decreasing sensory behaviors might be challenging, it is doable. But first you need to make sure you are decreasing behaviors that need to be decreased in a way that maintains your students autonomy and personal freedoms.
Before we dive into the lovely world of flapping and clapping, I think it’s essential to spend some time examining these considerations.
- 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. Everyone is entitled to engage in behaviors of there choosing and we don’t want to limit our students’ autonomy.
- 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).
This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!