Sensory Behaviors {Alternative Response}

The main way to target sensory behaviors is to see if you can think of an alternative response that is more appropriate. Some type of response that in some way meets those same sensory needs. Once you identify an alternative response, you need to teach and shape that responses just like with attention and escape behaviors. Provide the student regular and consistent access to the alternative sensory response. You want them to be engaging in this behavior over the problem problem behavior.
An alternative response can be an activity or engaging with some type of item. This is why sensory toys are so popular 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). Here are some tips & guidelines for helping to identify a sensory alternative response:
  • Preference Assessment: Conduct a formal or informal preference assessment. Provide your student access to a range of sensory toys and activities to see what he/she gravitate towards. Track how many minutes your student interacts with each item to determine which they seem to enjoy the most.
  • Sensory Breaks: Incorporate regular sensory breaks into your day – include them on your schedule.
  • Incorporate Communication:  Create visuals for the commonly used sensory toys so your student can ask for it. Put the picture in their PECS book. Have the items available and ready. You want the student to be using the sensory toy or sensory activity more often than engaging in the inappropriate behavior. Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 12.36.18 PM
  • Ensure Generalization: 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 first year teaching one student in my classroom kept a pipe cleaner in his pocket. He would occasionally play with it but it was very discrete. I actually didn’t even know about it until half way through the year it was very undetectable.

Spend some time observing the behavior. Think about what exactly is reinforcing about the behavior. This may help you identify some possibly alternative responses.

  • visual stimulation
  • auditory stimulation
  • physical stimulation

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There is no specific rules for trying to identify an alternative response for a sensory behavior. Play around, test out different items, and be creative. Sensory behaviors are tricky because we cannot manipulate the consequence of the 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. What is the name of the auditory sensory item on the bottom left of picture? It goes on the wrist? My student would love this!


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