How do you like your surroundings or your environment? Do you feel more comfortable when you have your own space or when you share your space with others? Do you feel more comfortable when certain individuals are in your environment? Do you feel anxious or troubled when you are interrupted from an enjoyable or important task?
Our environment can encourage productivity, peace, enjoyment, etc. However, it can also encourage escape behaviors; behaviors we may want to leave due to unpleasant, aversive or boring events occurring in the environment.
Examining an individual's environment or how the individual interacts within a particular environment is one of the best ways to determine what may be encouraging the individual's use of the challenging behavior.
There are technical terms for this, however, for right now look for clues. Act like a detective. Observe and document what is going on in the individual's immediate environment. Document what happened immediately before a problem behavior occurred. Be sure to observe this and do not go by memory. Example: Did music begin or stop playing, did someone open or close the door, was an action interrupted or stopped, what is the individual attending to before the challenging behavior occurred?
Many times there can be many triggers. Therefore, one factor by itself may be acceptable but another time or day, that factor with a change in the weather or a change in a route to a location may trigger a challenging behavior.
So, how is the environment? Is it conducive to the individual's learning style? Is the environment pleasant or irritating? Does the individual have a way within the immediate environment to have his/her needs met?
With many individuals with an ASD, there may be a sensory sensitivity which makes the environment more or less inviting. If in doubt, look for clues. Example: Does the individual place his fingers or hands over his ears? Individuals do not do this for fun; it truly means that it is not pleasant to the ears. Is the individual looking all around the room or staring at one particular item? If so, there may be a visual sensitivity; too much visual clutter/distractions or one major distraction. Is the individual running all around the room? Maybe the individual has a proprioceptive sensitivity, etc.
Therefore, be aware of possible sensory distracters/obstacles. Do not overlook these real, troublesome areas. Ensure there are supports available in the environment for the individual to handle sensory sensitivities.
Ensure the individual knows how to use the supports/tools and has access to these supports/tools, etc. Modify the environment to create an environment which is emotionally and physically safe, pleasant, comfortable. Add supports which encourage safe, appropriate behaviors. Remove triggers which disrupt learning or encourage escape behaviors.
Examples of modifications which may need to occur to assist in ensuring the environment is positive, enriched & safe
Define areas with visual and physical boundaries
Clear the area from clutter
Example: Non-functional, unimportant labels, pictures, posters, etc. in direct area.
Place items which are off-limits either out of reach, locked away or with clearly definable labels
This may also include locking away dangerous or distracting items, teaching off-limits, etc.
Minimize open areas
Unless the goal is to run, leave, etc.
Create and make available a quiet place or 'homebase' to take a break if needed
A place within the environment to go and plan/review daily events, refocus or calm down if needed.
Before expecting new skills to be demonstrated in different environments, practice the skills in similar or the actual setting
Example: Different environments classrooms, stores, parks, malls, rooms in homes, etc. Have different expectations, rules and enforcers of these rules. Expectations and schedules need to be reviewed and practiced!
Intersperse difficult/disliked tasks with easy/liked tasks
Slowly introduce environments
Example: Reinforce the individual with a token to be used towards a desired item when the individual is shown a picture of the place which needs to be visited, uses a calm voice tone when driving by the location, remains calm for 1 minute when parked in the parking lot, walks up to the door, enters the door, stands in the designated location for 1 minute, walks up to the task, touches the task, performs the task for 1 min. etc.
Place furniture in a manner to establish boundaries within the environment
Seek assistance with dangerous idiosyncrasies
It is imperative to know when and in what type of situations an individual demonstrates unhealthy or unsafe idiosyncrasies. A functional behavioral assessment is needed to determine this information. Data taking is very important to have a clearer understanding.
So, if it has been determined that one hits others when told "no" or when he/she does not get what they want immediately, assuming after data collection, that it is possible the child/adult is hitting because they have learned that they eventually gain access to an item if they hit, then this hitting behavior will have to be ineffective.
This is not a skill to go out and present at the store for the first time. Help the individual learn an acceptable behavior first then practice it with different people and in different settings. Have support and stick to the plan. It helps to have an 'exit' plan for moments which are more difficult. Bonus: Information cards on autism and behavior intervention can be given to bystanders.
Establish age-appropriate supports
Example: Maybe the individual is a teenager but they only speak a few words. Instead of denying the use of pictures, use the pictures of teenagers (or adults) vs. little children. Use age appropriate binders, wallets, iPads, etc., to display the pictures. But, do not deny the teenager a way to communicate. Withdrawing needed supports can encourage behaviors which may not be welcomed as the teenager attempts to have his or her needs and wants met without a communication system.
Create a schedule which includes a sensory break
Sensory sensitivities can be a major obstacle for individuals with an ASD. This must be addressed if one is expected to gain more skills. Example: If a bright light is flashing in your eyes, then you are going to avoid it (close your eyes/ turn away) or be mesmerized by it. Therefore, not only does an individual need a break but they may also need the tools, supports, or skills to know what to do when this occurs.
Visually display the order of tasks/ expectations
Order of tasks, break times, how to receive help, etc. Example: Agenda, classroom schedule, etc.
Ensure the individual knows how to follow and use an individualized schedule
Ensure the schedule is individualized
Ensure the schedule (daily agenda, etc.) is individualized especially if transitions, changes, beginning & ending tasks and motivation is an area of difficulty.
Add noise filters
Cardboard or carpet pieces taped over wall or ceiling speakers, headphones for those on computers, listening to music or watching a DVD when there are others around. Use carpet or rugs to buffer the noise. Cut an 'x' into tennis balls and then place on the bottom of chairs, desks and tables which are noisy when moved.
Post a classroom or family/group schedule
This clarifies what the group is expected to do. When others are participating in following a schedule, it can encourage enriching activities and tasks which are planned/predicted vs. sporadic.
Attempt to incorporate idiosyncrasies in a safe, socially acceptable manner until the environment is adjusted to encourage the individual's attention, participation or interest
We all have unusual behaviors. Some of us have learned to hide or disguise it. We may not flap or squeeze our hands in a manner which distracts others but we have them - just ask your family members ;-)
So, do we stay at home to avoid embarrassment? Many families do stay home. This is not an easy obstacle or area to address. The unusual behavior serves a purpose. It can be a filler, self-soothing or entertainment. However, it is usually not easy to control but it can get better. A replacement behavior, one more acceptable in public or to our safety, can be learned but until then, adjustments and allowances may be necessary in one's environment. Example: If going to a 'quiet' church, it may not be best to sit on the front row if you have a need to spin after 5 minutes. Sitting to the side or not right in front may possibly fulfill the need to spin without bumping into others or obstructing their view.
Safety issues addressed
Will the individual run from others? Will the individual take things from strangers? What safety issues need to be addressed and what safety skills need to be taught?
Functional Assessment/Analysis (Antecedents & Consequences); (PBS); Self-Management; Task Analysis; Social Narrative; Pivotal Response Training; (Naturalistic Interventions); Visual Supports; Stimulus Control