Why Does He Do That?

One of my very favorite students was riddled with sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behavior. For the sake of confidentiality, I will call him T. He loved being barefoot and preferred to run through the hallways with his feet pounding on the tile. Additionally, T would get to a specific spot in the hallway (conveniently located outside of the first grade classrooms) and yell so he could hear the echo. On his best days he yelled, “**ck you” and a plethora of other lovely phrases. Although the first grade teachers were extremely inclusive, this behavior went beyond a limit they could tolerate.

This guy’s competing behaviors included:

  • elopement (a fancy term for running away from the area)
  • physical aggression
  • property destruction
  • cursing
  • non-compliance
  • disruptive behavior

As an autism consultant, I first wanted to figure out why T was struggling with all of this behavior.

Why was he eloping?

  • he was getting sensory input by having his shoes off and feeling the tile on his feet
  • he was gaining sensory input from the echo in the hallway

When I watched where he was going when he eloped, I noticed:

  • he visited the bathroom and laid his head down by the drain (yuck!)
  • he went to the water fountain to get a drink, but also put his head down near the fan inside the fountain
  • he frequented a corner in the building that had a large vent

Once I determined what he was gaining from the behavior, I needed to figure out how he could gain that input in an appropriate way.

First, I made some specific rules for him. These rules were taught by social narratives (which I will explain later) and the use of visuals. No matter who was with T, every person followed the same rules. These rules included:

  • If T wanted to leave the classroom, he had to put on his shoes
  • If T wanted to hear an echo, he could create it in the sensory room, in the bathroom or on the playground (in a corner area near the building)

Because T was eloping to get to the drain, water fountain, fans and vents, I made those items reinforcement choices for him. This means, if he completed a certain number of tasks for me, he could choose an area to visit.

Reinforcement Chart

Because T needed so much sensory input, he received it before starting any activity. I created the chart above to structure his day. T’s sensory activities were all very calming. He enjoyed the weighted blanket with bubbles. At times he liked to blow the bubbles from the wand. T also loved hand, arm and leg massage with lavender lotion. He enjoyed having textured balls rolled on his arms, legs and back. I used a red wagon to pull T through the hallway as he wore a weighted vest. He benefited from the calm rolling of the wagon wheels. Toward the end of my time with him, he was able to pull me in the wagon, which is great for calming. T chose which activity he wanted to start with. Each of these activities was represented by a picture with a blue background. He put that picture in the blue square.

Next, I chose from the pink icons. These icons included any academic work T needed to complete. Additionally, more difficult times of the day were included such as specials, lunch, recess and general education time. When T began this activity I used a dry erase marker and placed check marks in the small pink squares. He would get a check mark for walking to the correct area, check marks for working on the activity and a check mark for walking back to his classroom. Once he received all of his checks, he earned his reinforcement.

T’s reinforcing activities were coded in yellow. These activities included going to the water fountain, visiting the custodian’s office (which had drains, pipes and fans – and we had an amazing custodian who formed a relationship with this kiddo and was simply fabulous), looking at an assortment of small fans we purchased for him, going to the sensory room for echo and using the iPad to make echo sounds with an app.

When T’s schedule became very structured and he knew exactly when he would get to see the drains again and he understood where and when he could take off his shoes, his other behaviors decreased greatly. I wrote a story about each activity T would complete and this story was read to him right before he went to that activity. This way, T was reminded of the rules of the activity and the adult who was with him became aware of exactly what should happen. Another very important part of reinforcement activities is that T knew exactly how long he could stay in the custodian’s office or at the water fountain and whoever was with him used a timer that beeped so he would have a concrete alert (not a person’s voice) to tell him that his time was up. He always asked for “one more minute, please” and I allowed him to have the time.

Further, T knew the consequence for not following the rules; which was a loss of that reinforcement activity for that day. If he were walking back to the classroom after visiting the water fountain and decided to fling off his shoes and run into the bathroom, the icon for the water fountain would not be an option for the rest of that school day.

T was extremely complex, but by addressing his sensory issues, his anxiety was lowered and he was better able to regulate his behavior.

I must add that this guy had the face of a cherub and a beautiful head of curls. His smile would melt me and when I walked in the room he would say, “there you are…she’s my favorite.” How could you not fall in love with him? Don’t forget to look beyond the behavior and see the needs of the child. Students cannot change their behavior. It is up to the adult to change the environment to fit the student’s needs.