Reducing Sensory Behaviors

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).
Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.48.46 AM
Some sensory behaviors are just disruptive. Screaming, screeching, running, spinning, throwing things, and the list goes on. These behaviors can have a major impact on the success of your classroom. Trying teaching a small group lesson on pronouns will someone is singing Scooby Doo at the topic his lungs at the table over from you. How can we even realistically expect our kiddos to focus? With majorly disruptive sensory behaviors we need to teach discrimination. When is it appropriate to engage in these behaviors and when is it not. We all know discrimination for our own sensory behaviors. When I’m in the middle of a presentation, I don’t lie on the floor and crack my back if I feel like it. But when I’m at home on my couch, I can have at it. We need to teach this skill.
Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.48.52 AM
Some sensory behaviors can be extremely dangerous. Head banging, hand biting, pica, skin picking, etc. These can be potentially very hurtful for your student and others. These needed to be target for reduction. There is no appropriate time or place to bang your head.
This week we will discuss some ways to teach discrimination for disruptive sensory responses and interventions for reducing dangerous behaviors.

This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

The Autism Helper - Summer Series



  1. I love this article and just wanted to note how you made an effort to emphasize the fact that we need to respect students’ personal freedoms. I feel like sometimes when working with our students, we forget that our students are people first and are just looking to eliminate any behavior that is not “typical”. Thank you for doing this summer series and always putting out students’ first.

  2. This week we will discuss some ways to teach discrimination for disruptive sensory responses and interventions for reducing dangerous behaviors.

    I cannot find the continuation for this subject. I wanted to see the ideas presented.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *