Sensory Behaviors {Sensory as Reinforcer}

Some sensory behaviors can actually work to your benefit. Hold the phone. Craytown I know. But let me clarify. These behaviors are obviously extremely reinforcing for your student because they do it all the freaken time. If the behavior is not dangerous, so for disruptive sensory behaviors – let your student work for engaging in the behavior. This will start to teach the concept of discrimination we talked about earlier this week. Teaching our students when it’s appropriate to engage in the response and when it is not appropriate. And you’ll get a little work done in the meantime.

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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. Remember, we all do sensory behaviors. We twirl our hair, bite our nails, grind our teeth, etc. Not all of these behaviors are 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 teach discrimination on when these behaviors are appropriate. We can teach our students to make them more discrete so they are not disruptive and do not cause the child to be ostracized. Some of these behaviors may  limit social opportunities and inclusion.
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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 have a student that cries almost all day. (very disruptive for the class) She doesn’t cry because she hurts or is not getting her way, I believe she cries for the sensory aspect. She then hits her hand until it bleeds so we wrap her hands daily (parent does the same). She enjoys looking through a plastic plate holder that has grids. She is non-verbal and extremely autistic. She doesn’t follow a PECS schedule because she follows verbal commands better. I have tried to use “stop crying then you get your plate”. Help!!!

  2. Hello,

    you may want to try making your First/then request of her more simple. often times with Autism our Sentence structures of first / then requests have to many “filler” words. Try saying “First no crying Then plate” Using the word “No” may seem a bit abrasive and sometimes can have drawbacks if the individual has a defiant disorder. However it keeps the request simple and less confusing. Statistics have shown that individuals with Autism at the lower functioning non verbal spectrum have difficulties Retaining/ understanding Sentences after the first 3 words.

  3. Thank you Julli. Thank is very helpful. Especially the understanding of the first three words. Sometimes she cries and we do not know what she wants. The plate does not always work. Thanks again.

  4. Great suggestions, Julli! So often we are using way too much language with our kids. I would also try to make sure you are giving her the plate contingent on not-crying. So the second she stops crying – give her the plate. Have you made a visual for her to ask for the plate? That would be my next move. Also – possibly ask the parent to look into any medical reason why she may be crying. She may be in pain and not be able to express that.

  5. Thank you.

  6. Love the idea of a sensory area! I need a bigger classroom!

  7. I have a student who is rather high-functioning and academically just lagging, but engages in a great deal of disruptive behaviors in our classroom–he is full time inclusion so I am his only teacher and he has great needs! His main disruptions are making lots of noises with his mouth throughout the day, and poking at/touching other students to the point where they are very annoyed with him. He chews gum to fulfill a sensory need (chews on everything, including his own fingers/clothes/close items such as pencils) but this does not make a difference in his noises. Help!

  8. I have a student that spits when excited, thoughts on how to reduce this? He does not mouth things and has a great food repertoire, but it does not seem to be oral seeking, just very excited and that’s how he expresses it versus flapping, etc.

  9. Have you tried gum?


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