A newsletter by the ASD Network

The Trauma Effect of Sensory and Social Development Issues in Autism:  Classroom Management Implications

By:  Robert Cox

I have been working in the field of autism for about 20 years now.  Over the past 4 years, while training and working as a trauma therapist, I have noticed some interesting trends. This began leading me develop a system of treatment which I have been able to implement in schools in the Kansas City area by working in conjunction with psychologists, counselors and resource teachers through 504 and IEP meetings on behalf of several clients.

Nothing about my research or findings are new.  We have known for some time that sensory issues play a major role in behavioral issues.   Even that if those sensory issues are auditory, the behaviors are generally more extreme.  We have known for some years that mindfulness can work to change the brain's structure and chemistry.  In addition, we know that when sensory issues are accounted for, we begin to see a reduction in the need for behavioral supports.

The environment becomes an assaultive force in the case of children with sensory issues.  The brain of the child with autism doesn't prune the way the neurotypical individual does and he is left with trillions of connections that are unnecessary making the process of discerning sensory input very difficult.  In addition, his amygdala (the organ in the brain responsible for triggering the fight or flight response and secreting cortisol and adrenaline) is larger and more dense than neurotypical peers priming him further for a triggered trauma response when met with sensory overload.  

So direction of treatment and support becomes very important in autism and should be as follows:
  1. Ask yourself what it is that might be making this child feel unsafe.
  2. If there are sensory issues do an assessment and begin implementing a sensory diet
  3. Begin training mindfulness techniques aimed at the ability level of the individual to train the brain and teach emotional regulation
  4. Implement new skills training with sensory breaks as needed (generally more frequent and longer breaks are needed the younger the individual).
Just as with trauma patients we have to first make individuals feel that they are safe.  I ask myself what is making them feel unsafe and implement supports to reverse that.  So we begin with sensory diets and help them feed the sensory input that they crave, or exclude the input that is overwhelming.  Once the diet is in place we begin teaching mindfulness techniques to help them to filter out unwanted stimulus and begin providing tools for emotional regulation.  

Only after we have dealt with the security and safety needs by doing these things will we be able to teach new behavioral and social skills (simple Maslow).  Often I see well-meaning and good people trying to teach children new skills without really considering why they are fearful, melting down or simply unresponsive.  If we think about what it will take to make the individual feel safe first and implement a few simple practices to make that happen we will see them take off from there.

If you would like to know more about some of these techniques, I would encourage you to email me and I have some simple exercises in mindfulness that have been very successfully implemented in schools in the Kansas City area I can make available. Because mindfulness is actually known to rewire the circuitry of the brain, assist in executive functioning and change the brain chemistry in positive ways we are finding these are really powerful techniques.

I encourage you to think first about how the behavior of the child is telling you they do not feel safe in the world.  I assure you that the vast majority of seemingly oppositional behavior with autism is based in this safety and security need.  

Coming up in October:

4th Get Ready, Get Set, Plan!  Specialized Instruction for Social Skills Programming 
5th Tri-State Webinar:  Autism & Numeracy - Task Analysis for Math Topics
7th Play is Not As Easy as It Looks:  How to Teach Joint Attention and Object Based Play to Young Children with ASD 
12th Tri-State Webinar:  Autism & Numeracy - Making Math Meaningful for Students with Autism
 Introduction to Intensive Teaching of Verbal Behavior - 3 Day training
19th Tri-State Webinar:  Autism & Mental Health - Differential Diagnosis for Autism
26th Tri-State Webinar:  Autism & Mental Health -Autism Treatment Strategies
27th AFLS Training 
27th Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder  
28th This Kid Loses Everything! ... Executive Functioning and Organization for Students with Autism


By Pam Sharping


Interspersing means mixing mastered tasks in with new or unlearned tasks.


Children learn new skills in fewer trials or faster when mastered tasks are interspersed with new tasks.

For behavior compliance, the child is likely to follow directions because they are getting reinforced for easy behaviors.  It creates behavior momentum.

Reduces frustration levels, because students are having success on easy tasks, increasing the likelihood that they will try harder tasks.


During any academic task (e.g., spelling, math, sequencing cards, labeling items, etc.)
Used for discrete behaviors.  Not as effective on chained behaviors such as reading a paragraph.
Behavior compliance - mix easy behaviors (high probability, e.g., touch nose, pick up pencil, give me five) with behaviors that are more difficult or less likely to be successful (low probability, e.g., sit down, open book to page 10 and begin reading).


Can be used with similar tasks (e.g., spelling mastered words with new words) or with dissimilar tasks (e.g., spelling unlearned words with labeling known animal pictures). 
Determine what reinforcement will be given for correct responses (e.g., praise, tickles, edibles, material item, etc.).
Determine the ratio of mastered tasks with new or unlearned tasks.  For example for every three mastered task items, introduce one new, or unlearned task or task step. 
Another strategy is to place easier or mastered questions or equations at the beginning of a task and gradually increase task difficulty.
Provide more reinforcement for correct responses on the new, unlearned tasks, than for correct responses on the known tasks.  Differentiate your praise, "Excellent!  You're so smart!"  If using tangible or edible reinforcers, it is recommended to deliver them for correct responses on new, unlearned task steps.  It is recommended to continue to praise correct responses on mastered task steps, but save the most powerful reinforce for unlearned behaviors.
You have the flexibility to intersperse as needed for each student.  The goal is to reduce errors, increase time on task, and to encourage learning new skills.
Burns, M. K., Ardoin, S. P., Parker, D. C., Hodgson, J., & Klingbeil, D. A. (2009). Interspersal technique and behavioral momentum for reading word lists. School Psychology Review, 38.3, 428-434.
Charlop, M. H., Kurtz, P. F., & Milstein, J. P. (1992). Too much reinforcement, to little behavior:  Assessing task interspersal procedures in conjunction with different reinforcement schedules with autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 795-808.
Hawkins, J., Skinner, C. H., & Oliver, R. (2005). The effects of task demands and additive interspersal ratios on fifth-grade students' mathematics accuracy. School Psychology Review, 34.4, 543-555.
Volkert, V. M., Lerman, D. C., Trosclair, N., Addison, L., & Kodak, T. (2008). An exploratory analysis of task-interspersal procedures while teaching object labels to children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41, 335-350.

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