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Enhancing the Behavior of Students with Autism & Sensory Over-responsivity

Over half of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders have sensory over-responsivity to tactile and auditory stimulation with reduced sensory limbic habituation (Green et al., 2015).  Their lack of habituation makes it physiologically more likely they will become distracted and have difficulty learning. Significant sensory modulation difficulties were related to attention and academic achievement challenges in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and significant sensory modulation difficulties benefit from learning to use coping strategies that improve their attention, learning and behavior in the classroom. Among SBIs (sensory-based interventions) tactile massage intervention a minimum of 15 minutes, twice weekly for 3 months has the greatest research support for improving student behavior and learning (Wan Yunus et al., 2015).

Sensory coping strategies for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders who have sensory over-responsivity begin with teaching students to monitor their energy levels to determine if they are high, medium or low and whether their energy levels are OK for learning.

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Next, evidence-based environmental adaptations should be tried to minimize auditory (sound absorbing walls, noise canceling headphones, carpeting), visual (halogen lighting, study carols), and tactile distractions (specific seating so they will not accidentally touch peers). Finally, teachers and therapists should try to reduce the pace and volume as well as increase the salience of instructions, and use visual supports as indicated (Ashburner et al., 2008; Kinnealey et al., 2012). Breaks from learning involving deep pressure and linear movement (Murray et al., 2009), such as by having the student pass out books or deliver messages, can also promote learning. Given that over half of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders also demonstrate significant sensory over-responsivity, it is important to teach coping strategies that will maximize their learning. speechaudnevhandouts  ERI2017SBISupplement

References:

Ashburner, J., Ziviani, J., & Rodger, S. (2008). Sensory processing and classroom emotional, behavioral, and educational outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 564–573.    

Green, S. A., Hernandez, L., Tottenham, N., Krasileva, K., Bookheimer, S. Y., & Dapretto, M. (2015). Neurobiology of sensory overresponsivity in youth with autism spectrum disorders. JAMA psychiatry, 72(8), 778-786.

Kinnealey, M., Pfeiffer, B., Miller, J., Roan, C., Shoener, R., & Ellner, M. L. (2012). Effect of classroom modification on attention and engagement of students with autism or dyspraxia. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 66, 511–519.

Murray, M., Baker, P. H., Murray-Slutsky, C., & Paris, B. (2009). Strategies for supporting the sensory-based learner. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth53(4), 245-252.

Wan-Yunus, F. W., Liu, K. P., Bissett, M., & Penkala, S. (2015). Sensory-based intervention for children with behavioral problems: a systematic review. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 45(11), 3565-3579.

 

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Sensory-Based Interventions (SBIs) Improve Behavior

Occupational therapists use sensory-based interventions (SBIs) to improve the behavior of children, adolescents and adults with developmental and sensory processing challenges. SBIs are the guided use of sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment to improve sensory modulation skills and behavior. Emerging evidence suggests that SBIs can significantly reduce distress and promote attention.

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SBIs empower clients to actively substitute the sensory input provided through aggressive and self-injurious behavior with sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment. However, SBI intervention needs to be goal-directed and specifically matched to the client’s needs and preferences. The use of SBIs has been included in the research supported Greenspan Floortime Approach for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Approach for children and adolescents with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and treatment models for reducing restraint and seclusion in pediatric and adult mental health facilities as well as schools OTPractSchoolOTRedAgg Reducing-Restraint-and-Seclusion  Continue reading

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Applying FAB Strategies

I developed FAB Strategies (Functionally Alert Behavior Strategies) to help children, adolescents and young adults who have complex behavioral challenges.  The FAB Strategies Form guides the use of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies.  The FAB Strategies forms enable teachers, families as well as occupational, physical, speech/language and mental health therapists to work towards the same functional behavioral goals using consistent strategies.  The copyrighted FAB strategies forms are offered free of charge to therapists for use in developing home programs that improve functional behavior.

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FAB Strategies combines positive behavioral support and sensory processing strategies to improve behavior.   School occupational therapists can effectively team with parents and school staff to reduce school aggression, restraint and seclusion.

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PosterPBS in SchoolOT

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Light touch and Holding Interventions

Light touch and holding strategies promote body awareness and social-emotional skills in children and adolescents with behavioral challenges. Deep pressure touch is a more common therapeutic intervention. However, light touch and holding are valuable therapeutic options for promoting attention, body awareness and social-emotional skills.

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Body awareness, stress and somatic pain challenges negatively impact behavior in many children and adolescents with developmental, sensory processing, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, internalizing behavioral concerns and other psychiatric disorders.  Attention, body awareness, stress and somatic pain problems can be addressed through the use of light touch and holding strategies.  Light touch and holding strategies are particularly useful for improving and directing functional attention, and provide a valuable option for reducing stress, somatic pain, and social-emotional problems when deep pressure massage is contraindicated.  Particularly for young people experiencing acute pain, edema, taking analgesic medications (e.g., which can decrease pain perception) or taking antidepressant medications (e.g., which can cause light headedness and dizziness) light touch and holding are preferred.

Recent research indicates that positively perceived slow, light touch specifically activates CT afferent fibers connecting to the Insular Cortex that convey social-emotional interactions and our internal sense of self.  FAB Strategies utilizing light touch and holding include: Vibration to the Back, Arms, & Body as well as the Rolling the arm, Back X, Spine crawl, Head crown, and Foot input.  These light touch and holding techniques which are components of FAB Strategies will be described below.

It can be clinically useful to provide extremely irritable children and adolescents who have significant body awareness challenges repeated sensory experiences of the front, back, top and bottom of their bodies. FAB Strategies light touch and holding techniques were developed to provide sensory experiences of the front, back, top and bottom of the body as a foundation for improved body awareness and social-emotional skills.  In addition to the light touch and holding strategies the awareness of the front, back, top and bottom of the body is practiced through several FAB Strategies deep pressure touch and mindful movement activities.

Vibration to the Back, Arms, & Body provide light touch input.  Vibration can also be applied to various body parts with eyes open and closed, to increase body awareness by having clients identify each body part as it is touched (e.g., arm, left ankle).  Light touch can also be provided through the Rolling the arm strategy.  The therapist rolls the arm in a palm open, thumb lateral direction providing relaxation.

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The Back X involves drawing an X across the back with your fist, while the Spine crawl involves moving up the spine to give awareness of the back. The Back X and Spine Crawl can be done as part of the X Marks the spot light touch game

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The Head Crown involves 10 second holding on the head, first on both sides then on the front and back of the head.

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Foot input involves massage and holding of the feet to provide improved sensory awareness of the feet as the foundation and bottom of the body.  Foot input can be followed by stretching exercises to help decrease the likelihood of habitual toe walking.  Light touch and holding strategies are a valuable intervention to improve attention, body orientation and social-emotional skills through interpersonal touch.  Light touch and holding can also decrease stress, pain, and provide comfort when more intense massage is contraindicated.

References:

Beider, S., Mahrer, N. E., Gold, J. I. (2007). Pediatric massage therapy: An overview for clinicians. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 54(6), 1025-1041.

Bjornsdotter, M., Loken, L., Olausson, H.., Valbo, A., & Wessberg, J. (2009). Somatotopic organization of gentle touch processing in the posterior insular cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(29) 9314-9320.

Koester, C. (2012). Movement based learning for children of all abilities. Reno, NV: Movement Based Learning Inc.

McGlone, F., Wessberg, J., & Olausson, H. (2014). Discriminative and affective touch: Sensing and feeling. Neuron, 82(4), 737-755.

Perini, I., & Olausson, H. (2015). Seeking pleasant touch: Neural correlates of behavioral preferences for skin stroking. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9.

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Role of school OT’s, PT’s, SLP’s in Behavior Intervention

School Occupational, Physical and Speech Therapists play a significant role in improving student behavior. While traditionally viewed exclusively as the role of school social workers, psychologists, and behaviorists the complex problems of students with interrelated behavioral and developmental challenges can be helped by the contribution of school therapists.  The relationship between behavioral problems, the occupation of students, communication/language abilities, and gross motor skills supports the role of school occupational, speech/language and physical therapists as members of school teams helping students with behavioral and developmental challenges.

By teaming with occupational, speech/language and physical therapists, teachers and school mental health specialists can enhance their school positive behavioral support programs with expanded use of visual supports, mindfulness, music, exercise, and sensory-motor activities (Patten et al., 2013; Schaaf et al., 2014).  There is emerging evidence that cardiovascular and resistance exercise enhances body awareness, attention, as well as functional strength and endurance for improved participation in school learning tasks http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3208137/pdf/nihms297861.pdf

School therapists can utilize evidence based mindfulness strategies as movement breaks that improve attention, and integrate behavioral strategies into their school therapy to enhance student’s school behavior.  Behavior for Therapists Slides The picture below describes the FAB Strategies adaptation of the PATHS PBS Turtle Technique to help students with special needs learn to calm down and avoid aggression.

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The AOTA supports the role of school occupational therapy in helping to improve student’s behavior (Cahill & Pagano, 2015).  The following Occupational Therapy article describes clinical school occupational therapy strategies that can be used to reduce student aggression  (Click on highlighted, then double click on lower heading) SchoolOTRedAgg

References

Cahill, S. M. & Pagano, J. L. (2015). Reducing restraint and seclusion: The benefit and role of occupational therapy. AOTA School Mental Health Toolkit. http://www.aota.org/-/media/Corporate/Files/Practice/Children/SchoolMHToolkit/Reducing-Restraint-and-Seclusion.pdf

Flook, L., Smalley, S., Kitil, M., Galla, B., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J., Ishijima, E., Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95. http://skolenforoverskud.dk/Artikler%20-%20mindfulness/Flook-Effects-of-Mindful-Awareness-Practices-on-Executive-Function-1.pdf

Kazdin, A. E. (2008). The Kazdin Method for parenting the Defiant Child. NY, NY: Mariner Books.

Laugeson, E. A. (2014). The PEERS curriculum for school-based professionals: Social skills training for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Routledge.

Mahammadzaheri, F., Koegel, L. K., Rezaee, M., Rafiee, S. M. (2014). A randomized clinical trial comparison between pivotal response treatment (PRT) and structured applied behavioral analysis (ABA) intervention for children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44(11), 2769-2777.

Schaaf, R. C., Benevides, T., Mailloux, Z., Faller, P., Hunt, J., van Hooydonk, E., … & Sendecki, J. (2014). An intervention for sensory difficulties in children with Autism: A randomized trial. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44(7), 1493-1506.

Warner, E., Spinazzola, J., Westcott, A., Gunn, C. & Hodon, H. (2014). The body can change the score. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 7(4), 237-246.