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Sensory Behavior

What is Sensory Behaviour?

Sensory behaviour, (i.e., “stims”) is usually a form of automatic reinforcement, meaning that it’s done because it just feels good. Cooper, Heron & Heward, describe automatic reinforcement as a “behaviour that creates a favorable outcome without involving another person”, (2007). I have a necklace that I wear all the time, and I find myself fidgeting with it when I am in meetings. How about someone who clicks their ink pen continuously?

Now we are not here to start a debate on whether or not an individual “needs” to engage in a sensory behaviour. But we do know that if the behaviour is a danger to themselves or others, then it should be addressed. My son has lots of stims. He was diagnosed with ASD at an early age. Over the years I have come to view stims as his tools for communicating. I never want to remove a tool from that toolbox, unless I’m going to replace it with something else.

A few months ago he developed a stim that involved him violently nodding his head, in a forceful motion, at first it was harmless, as it wasn’t impeding on his ADLs. He soon started complaining of headaches, which was new for him. Of course, we had our doctor evaluate him to make sure nothing else was going on. We were able to determine that the head nodding was causing the headaches, so for his comfort, we needed to intervene.

What Did You Do?

We found a replacement behaviour for him. He is vocal so we were able to brainstorm together what he could do instead of nodding. He finally settled on crossing his arms over his chest. It took some time, but as the arm crossing was encouraged we saw the head-nodding decrease, and complaints of headaches go away.

Other Ways to Work with Sensory Behaviors.

  1. Blocking, this is where you would physically block the individual from performing the behavior. You see this in self-injurious behaviors or behaviors that could hurt another person. An example is an individual who bites themselves very hard We don’t want them to get hurt.
  2. Time and place, one of my dearest friends, son used to remove his clothing every chance he got. Even in the middle of grocery stores. She tried so many clothing options to determine what fabrics would work best for him, but she worked on teaching him that when he’s at home and in his room it was ok. Giving him that designated time that he knew he could remove his clothing decreased his public clothing removal events.
  3. Teaching replacement behavior, we went over this one above but don’t ever take something away without putting something back in its place.

Be sure to click below to watch our latest YouTube video where we discuss sensory behaviors.

Check out our other post on Sensory Overload Simulations


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  1. Pingback: Sensory Overload Simulations - How to ABA

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