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3 Ways to Teach Replacements or Coping Strategies for Sensory-Based Challenging Behavior

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As I talked about in my last post in the challenging behavior series, there are two primary ways that the different sensory experiences of students with autism might be related to the function of a challenging behavior.  It might be to escape from a situation that is too loud, or too bright or too smelly or all of those things among others.  It might also be to gain reinforcement from something internal or end an internal feeling that is uncomfortable.  Today I want to talk about how we can teach an individual replacement behaviors to get their needs met without the challenging behavior. These are some of the most difficult replacement behaviors to teach and identify so let me share some examples.

1.  Teach an escape response

If an external situation is something that is causing sensory distress for an individual we can teach them to ask for a break or a way to get out of the situation.  I talked about ways to do this and the procedure would be the same.  It’s important to remember is the importance of teaching an individual a way to let people know in an appropriate way that he/she needs to leave.  In many situations, especially in schools, simply walking away is not an option that is easily accepted or understood so giving some kind of sign that a break is needed is important.

2.  Teach self-regulation

Sometimes the person can’t escape from a situation that is overwhelming.  Imagine you are on a plane and a baby is screaming.  If loud noises and headphones bother you, there is no where else to go and you have to find a way to deal with it.  Fire drills are another example.  Similarly, if the sensory experience that someone is trying to escape is something internal, like anxiety or anger, walking away isn’t an option.  At that point the person needs to be able to try to relieve that sensation.  To help with those situations, it’s important for a person to have ways to calm themselves down and maintain their behavior while tolerating the behavior.  Some ways to teach that include teaching relaxation skills using social stories, teaching mindfulness, and teaching self-monitoring skills to prevent the feelings from escalating like the 5-Point Scale. In addition to the links above, I wrote posts on A Special Sparkle about relaxation strategies as well.

3.  Replace the Sensory Experience

If you have a student who is engages in challenging behavior because it creates an automatic reinforcer for them, then you have to look for ways to replace that sensory experience.  This is probably the hardest approach because it is difficult to find replacements that are appropriate and really replace the sensation.  So if you have a student who picks, it might mean finding something else for them to pick, like a koosh.  The top picture of the cookie sheet has hot glue on it for a student who liked to pick, he would pick at the dried glue.  They were pretty sturdy so they were unlikely to come off.  The bottom cookie sheet might work as a replacement for a student who liked to play in his spit with his fingers.  It’s just finger paint inside a ziplock bag taped to a cookie sheet.

Ever had a student who vocalizes constantly.  Sometimes it’s humming, sometimes it’s yelling, sometimes it’s just making a noise or repeating the same thing over and over.  First you need to find out what the sensation is that seems to reinforce it.  In the case of noises, is it the sound or the vibration in their throat?  Try playing music or noise in the background or on headphones.  If that reduces the noisemaking, it might be the sound that is reinforcing.  If not, try putting a massager or a vibrating toy on their neck and see if that reduces the sound. Then it might be the vibrating sensation you have to replace.  Once you figure that out, you can teach the student to access the more appropriate reinforcer on his/her own or teach them to request it.

So, those are some strategies for addressing challenging behaviors that are related to automatic reinforcement or the need to escape from sensory experiences.  Please share other ideas you have had in the comments.

Until next time,

7 thoughts on “3 Ways to Teach Replacements or Coping Strategies for Sensory-Based Challenging Behavior”

  1. Do you know if there is a book with a list of sensory based challenging behaviors and strategies or suggestions of what you can do in the classroom to help with it (just like the few examples you gave)?
    Fun in ECSE

  2. Hi! I have a student who is constantly moving. He jumps and runs around the classroom and can't sit still in his chair. It appears that he is "hyper" but I am guessing that it has some sort of sensory function. Do you have any ideas that I can use in class to help him calm down and stay more focussed?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Chelsea, thanks for sharing your blog…I am now following it. For the student, I think the first thing you need to do is figure out through a functional behavior assessment if it is indeed a sensory function and that may help determine what the sensory / reinforcement element is that's involved. Using exercise proactively before work time may be a good antecedent strategy to try in the meantime. You can find more about the research on that in this post: Thanks for reading!

  3. Pingback: 5 Easy Ways to Engineer Communication in Your Classroom | Autism Classroom Resources

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