Behavioral Strategies to Help Make Your Next Sensory Friendly Experience a Success
Sensory-friendly, autism-friendly, relaxed, and inclusive events are popping up across the country. TDF offers supported Broadway performances in New York City, the Space Center Houston opens its doors early every other month, and several stadiums and arenas now offer sensory bags to help with the intense stimulation.
For individuals who cannot do big crowds, extreme lighting, or loud volumes, these events provide opportunities for the whole family to engage in culturally and educationally fulfilling activities in a safe, judgement-free, and fun environment. But as with any novel activity, a little preparation can go a long way.
The science of Behavior Analysis has developed interventions and recommendations for supporting individuals with autism and developmental delays.
While many of these interventions require individualized assessment and trained therapists, there are some evidence-based strategies that are relatively easy to learn. So before packing up the car and heading out, consider these parent-friendly behavioral strategies to help make your experience a success.
Practice the skill in advance
More and more sensory-friendly events are providing sensory bags but having the bag does not guarantee your child will know how to benefit from it. Behavioral Skills Training, a process for teaching a new skill, is pretty intuitive. First, you tell your child what you want him/her to do, then you show him/her what to do, and then you ask him/her to practice doing it. Finally, you give the child feedback on how he/she did.
For example, if you want to teach your child to put on headphones when the area is too loud, you might tell him/her you are going to turn on the music and instruct to put on the headphones when the music becomes uncomfortable. Then, show him/her by turning up the volume, wincing to show discomfort, and putting on the headphones. Give the child a chance to practice this and be sure to give sincere praise when he/she gets it right.
You can also do these steps to practice initiating social interaction, mealtime skills, standing in line, or plenty of other skills your child can practice in advance. Here are some things to remember: you are doing these steps, so he/she has a chance to practice the behavior at a time at which he/she is likely to be successful.
Be clear in your instructions—you want to give instructions at the level he/she can understand. Also, make sure it is clear when he/she should do the behavior. When showing your child what to do, make sure he/she is watching you and is motivated to learn. Consider offering a choice of things to earn while you work on the skill. It is okay to reinforce the behavior as long as he/she is attending and trying, just make sure you are not rewarding errors or poor attention. This might take some time.
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If your child cannot understand verbal instructions or will not generalize these skills to the event, the options below might be a better fit!
Redirect your child’s attention to something less stressful
At the event, be prepared to help your child through tough times by redirecting his/her attention or behavior toward something more productive or less disruptive. Response Interruption and Redirection is a strategy that is helpful when your child is engaging in undesirable behavior that might be harmful or distracting. This looks different depending on what your child engages in.
If your child understands verbal instructions, interruption and redirection can be as simple as telling your child it is time to do something else and redirecting him/her to that activity. If your child does not understand verbal rules and engages in stereotypy or disruptive behavior, the steps below might be more effective.
If your child is too loud or is making disruptive vocalizations without responding to requests to tone it down, get your child’s attention (eye contact with body oriented toward you) and ask a series of questions your child can easily answer. These might be things like, “what is your name?”, “how old are you?”, or “what color is my jacket?” Just make sure the questions are things your child knows and has a history of success with. Note: if you think your child is being loud to get your attention, this is not the best strategy!
If your child is engaging in disruptive motor stereotypy or is being physically disruptive, follow a similar procedure but with motor tasks. You should again get his/her attention (“look at me,” and stand in front of him/her) and provide prompts for imitation responses he/she can easily do.
For example, you would say, “do this,” while clapping your hands, wait a couple seconds for your child to clap his/her hands, and then say, “do this,” again while patting your head. You might also bring an activity like a string and some beads for your child to sit and do for a few minutes.
The important thing with this strategy is that these must be requests your child can readily accomplish, but not something too fun or it will reinforce the undesired behavior. You will probably need to start doing this well before the event to practice responding to your requests and instructions. Give some praise when he/she answers your request, and if your child doesn’t want to follow an instruction, move on instead to strategy number three.
Offer choices to your child
Giving your child choices of activities, reinforcers, and even whether to stay or go is a strategy that can avoid a lot of stress for you both. While this sounds simple, it is important to discuss a few ways it can go wrong. One common mistake is waiting until your child is visibly upset or engaging in problem behavior before offering choices.
While this can still be effective at ensuring your child is able to move on to a new activity or escape from an undesirable activity, it means your child had to get to a point of being uncomfortable before support was offered. Also, this might teach your child to act upset or engage in poor behavior to get what he/she wants.
Offer choices from the start of the event to establish an expectation that your child’s choice will be honored. If your child requests something that is not possible, instead of saying “no” or outright denying their request, it is sometimes helpful to respond with choices that are possible. For example, if your child says he would like to go on the train, you might say, “we can do that a bit later, right now would you rather go to the dinosaur exhibit or the 4D theater?”
Another common mistake is to offer too many choices. Having too much choice is stressful for us all and can result in your child feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Keep choice options to two and give your child some freedom to explore options for himself/herself. It may be helpful to create a ring of pictures, so your child knows what choices are available through this specific experience.
A final consideration is to be sure your child can understand the choices available. If your child communicates through pictures or signs, it could be helpful to practice some of the words that will be common at the event. For example, if you plan to go to a natural history museum, you might in advance teach your child to sign (or say or give a picture of) “dinosaur” in the presence of a picture of a dinosaur and also make the sign to request dinosaur toys.
This practice will help your child to understand the choices at the event. If your child relies on pictures, don’t forget to have them available in his/her communication device or, if your child is high functioning, you might have them do their own research on what they can expect to see.
We have presented these three behavioral strategies that work well to prepare for community events because they do not require extra materials, need only one caregiver, and can be done on the spot. Of course, they are just as effective at home and at school! With these in mind, we hope you get out to the sensory-friendly events in your area and have some fun!
Dougan, R. K., King, M. L., Fischetti, A. T., Lake, C. M., Mathews, T. L., & Warzak, W. J. (2017). Parent-implemented behavioral skills training of social skills. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50, 805-818. doi: 10.1002/jaba.411.
Neitzel, J. (2009). Steps for implementation: Response interruption/redirection. Chapel Hill, NC: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina. Retrieved from: https://csesa.fpg.unc.edu/sites/csesa.fpg.unc.edu/files/ebpbriefs/ResponseInterruption_Steps.pdf
Steward, K.K., Carr, J.E., & LeBlanc, L.A. (2007). Evaluation of family-implemented behavioural skills training for teaching social skills to a child with asperger’s disorder. Clinical Case Studies, 6, 252-262.
This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs