Sensory Behaviors {Behavior Week}

Categories: Interventions | 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 Products 


  1. Hi Sasha
    Any ideas for stopping very disruptive high pitch screaming and loud humming noises? He does this in all kinds of settings during a various activities or tasks. We have tried listening to himself (which he doesn’t like)also removing him from class; ignoring (which we can’t); being very firm – BUT he can’t stop. It could be a Auditory stim or behavioural?? ANY ideas please. Thanks

  2. Give a high motivating reward every time he stops screaming or high pitch humming. It may seem very much like you are rewarding the wrong behaviour at first but keep with it sometimes it takes a bit for the student/individual to catch on. So the reward might be a small m&m. Here what it should sound like. Scream, hum, individual takes a quick breath you offer the m&m and say I like your quiet voice! (Nothing else, and no eye contact or verbal during the screams). Sometimes it’s a good idea to stand out of their eye sight or pick up a book and act busy, almost like the screams mean nothing to you! But every single time the individual pauses give the verbal paise quickly an a small reward. Eventually you remove the m&m and just do verbal praise, this may take time and a weaning process. It works on every student I have ever worked with just find what their high motivator is, we don’t all like m&ms! Ha ha good luck.

  3. Great advice Carrie! I agree! I also like doing a timer intervention for scripting/screaming. Pick a small and doable interval for the student to remain quiet. It can be 5 seconds even. After the interval with no scripting give a highly preferred reinforcer (big time reinforcer). Make a big ole’ deal about this – praise galore and everything. Gradually increase the time. When scripting/screaming does occur – he has to reset his timer and start over. This student may be higher functioning than yours but you could simplify this or use a visual timer. Like Carrie said, it is time consuming, but SO worth it in the end.

  4. Hi there!
    Love your website…It’s so helpful! I was wondering what app you used on your iPad to take that data…looks like it could be helpful for all…thanks again for all you do and share with others!


  5. I love your website! I teach Life Skills and have two AU students. I was going to make a small sensory box for one of my students and was wondering if you had any ideas what I should put in it. Already I have two balls with different textures and these small round objects that have different textures. Thank you!

  6. I am new to this area. my grandson was just diagnosed with autism. I am not sure I am understanding what you are talking about when you say scripting. Can you explain?

  7. Scripting is repetitive or nonsensical speech. Here is a definition from Autism Speaks. Scripting
    Echolalia, sometimes referred to as ?scripting?, is the repetition of words, phrases, intonation, or sounds of the speech of others, sometimes taken from movies, but also sometimes taken from other sources such as favorite books or something someone else has said. Children with ASD often display ?scripting? in the process of learning to talk. Hope this helps!

  8. Hey Sasha! I just came across your website. I have a first grade student with Autism who has a 1-on-1 paraprofessional with there in the general education classroom. Our biggest challenge right now is the constant scripting and noises. It is definitely a combination of scripting and then loud yells and buzzing noises. I also believe some of it could be sensory related because this student puts everything in their mouth. We have a sensory corner and this student gets lots of breaks. The student also has several items that can be chewed on and this sometimes helps with the noises. We have also tried video modeling and using a 5 point scale for voice levels. After reading your post about the student who received rewards for not scripting, I am definitely intrigued. I am just curious, when you rewarded your student for not scripting, what language did you use? I usually prompt this student with “level 1 voice please” or “quiet mouth.” Should I use that same language when rewarding the student? For example, if the student is quiet for two minutes, I make a big deal and say “great job having a quiet mouth.” Just wondering what wording is best!


  9. Great question! Yes – I think language like that would be great. I initially had issues with this as well because the student mistakenly took this as no talking and wouldn’t answer any questions during the interval. We did extensive practice defining the scripting as “bad talking” and that’s the language we used. But I think Level 1 voice or quiet mouth it good as well. The student will start to identify what you mean by that through the process of providing reinforcment.


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