|competencies | tutorial | glossary | help | site index|
Demonstrates the ability to adapt, modify, or structure the environment based on an understanding of which auditory, visual or other sensory stimuli may be distracting, offensive, reinforcing, or calming for the individual student under the direction of licensed staff.
Sensory Strategies That Help
When working with an individual with ASD, sensory strategies may be helpful. There are many things that could be included as part of the individual’s sensory program or “sensory diet ,” and they must be selected, designed, and supervised by appropriately trained and licensed professional staff. Some of the strategies that may help include:
How Do Sensory Strategies Work?
Sensory strategies work on the nervous system like a protective screen or medication to lessen the effect of more noxious or painfully experienced sensory input. They can be applied in two ways, as a preventative strategy or in response to an immediate need. Just as someone can take an antacid prior to eating a food that causes indigestion, a teacher or paraprofessional can anticipate problems with an individual who demonstrates sensory processing problems, defensiveness, difficulties attaining and maintaining an optimal level of arousal, or experiences unpredictable “meltdowns.” Using a specific program of sensory activities preventatively, a trained adult may be able to assist this student to effectively modify and improve behavior, to maintain an optimal state of arousal longer and recover quicker, to experience fewer and less severe meltdowns, to be more focused and able to attend to specific sensory stimuli..
In addition, when a situation is causing an individual to become upset because of sensory demands that he can’t tolerate a sensory strategy might help the student calm down, tolerate, or participate in the activity. For example, a paraprofessional might be instructed to give an individual a chewy toy or some gummy bears to help him sit and listen during a story time.
In addition to using strategies to effectively provide sensory input in a palatable way to the individual with ASD, it also is important to be aware of ways to adapt the environment or curriculum to decrease aversive sensory input and create a calmer environment. Just like when one has a headache, it helps to create a calmer environment by dimming the lights, slowing down the pace, and decreasing noise. The use of adaptations or environmental modifications can help the individual with sensory issues to better cope in his or her environment.
The following are some ways to adapt the environment based on specific sensory issues. This is just a guide and should be considered generalized examples of strategies, but not a treatment plan for any one individual. The paraprofessional must work with the teacher or licensed staff to assist with this area.
Which Strategies Should Be Used?
Usually, a trained team, including an occupational therapist, case worker, teacher(s), and other licensed staff, use cues from the individual with ASD to determine what type of input he or she is seeking. Then they choose and design strategies that will provide that input in a structured or organized way. The licensed staff guides the paraprofessionals in how to practically use these intervention approaches.
In general, the goal is to reduce input that is overstimulating to the nervous system and increase input that is calming. The safest and most effective strategies tend to be oral motor, deep-pressure, and proprioceptive input. These tend to calm and regulate the sensory system, are less likely to cause overstimulation, and tend to be sought out by individuals with ASD and sensory defensiveness. Although movement can be a very effective and powerful, helping to calm and organizing sensory input, it should be used with caution. It can be so powerful that if a student gets too much intensity of input, it can cause him to become more disorganized or, for example, cause a person who is prone to seizures to have one. It is critical to have an occupational therapist involved in directing and monitoring use of sensory strategies.
How Can One Tell If a Strategy Is Working?
It is important in using sensory strategies that the entire staff, including the paraprofessionals, knows what behaviors to look for and understand why sensory strategies are being used. Usually, the goal is for the individual to be more organized, attentive, and able to participate in daily activities. With some strategies, one may observe an immediate effect—the individual stops chewing on inappropriate objects when given gum or other chewable items. When strategies are used in a preventative way, the effectiveness can only be seen over the long term.
Sometimes it is easier to determine if the strategies are not working. For example, an individual might pull away, express a look of distress, verbally resist, or act more excitable and less attentive during class. However, just because one staff person gets a negative response once, it does not mean the strategy does not work. It may just need to be done differently, in a different setting, or with a different person
Sometimes strategies will work for a while and then lose their effectiveness and need to be changed. It is important that staff members share observations and work together to make sure that the desired outcome is being achieved, and if not, that changes are made accordingly.
Information in this lesson is used with permission from:
Sievers, P., & Meidle, D. (2002). Sensory issues in ASD. In Supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The role of the paraprofessional (pp. 55-68). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, College of Education and Human Development, Institute on Community Integration (UCEDD) and Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning.