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A sensory approach proves effective in working with persons with autism and challenging behaviors

By Elaine LaMontagne, director of vocational services, Community Work Opportunities, LLC

Many persons served in the vocational program at Community Work Opportunities (CWO) in Canton, Michigan, were unable to participate in the organization’s activities because of behaviors such as severe self-stimulation, self-abuse, aggression toward others, property destruction, or shutdown. These individuals experienced difficulty engaging in their own lives, visiting with family members, meeting appointments, and going out in the community.

When CWO staff members began researching ways to deal with this issue, they tried using low lighting, Snoezelen® equipment, quiet areas, and soft music. However, these measures were not enough to defuse the environmental stimuli. A new approach was needed, and CWO turned to sensory processing.

CWO’s sensory program uses a “sensory diet”
A sensory program addresses the underlying sensory processes for the behaviors that make it hard for individuals to participate fully in their lives. The program provides the environments and sensory opportunities needed to get an individual’s nervous system ready to engage in life’s opportunities.

To launch the sensory program, CWO hired an occupational therapy practitioner who was trained and experienced in sensory processing. The occupational therapist conducts an evaluation of each person served to interpret behavioral responses from a sensory perspective and to develop programming based on the therapist’s interpretations.

A “sensory diet”—a term coined by occupational therapist and clinical psychologist Patricia Wilbarger—is a carefully designed activity plan to help individuals remain focused and organized throughout the day. A sensory diet provides therapeutic doses of strong brainstem sensations to improve a person’s brain neurochemistry and neurocircuitry.

Many persons served by CWO have made significant improvements when they participate in a personalized sensory diet created by an occupational therapist and carried out by direct care staff members who are trained on implementing that diet.

Environmental modifications pave the way for a sensory approach
CWO modifies environments to eliminate excessive demands on an individual’s struggling nervous system. These modifications can be achieved through:

  • Using a sensory orientation to modify room layouts of work areas and home environments.
  • Providing more choices for purposeful and meaningful activities.
  • Providing opportunities to engage in specific sensory activities to promote a ready state for undertaking functional tasks.
  • Providing sensory cues, such as visual, auditory, smell, and taste, to help individuals predict what will happen next in their day.
  • Using appropriate communication tools and devices to enhance the individual’s ability to communicate.

Further steps for implementing a sensory program include:

  • Identifying persons served who might have sensory processing disorders.
  • Educating agency supervisors, direct support staff, and others providing supports and services on the foundations of sensory processing, indicators of sensory processing disorders, the barriers the disorders impose on daily interactions, and the potential outcomes that can be accomplished when using a sensory program approach.
  • Designing sensory-enriched environments that promote learning and accomplishments through meaningful and functional tasks.
  • Teaching sensory-based techniques to support staff so they can be incorporated throughout a person’s day.
  • Implementing consistent, predictable daily schedules within sensory-enriched environments.
  • Measuring positive changes that lead to more meaningful and purposeful daily interactions, both for the persons served and the staff members who support them.

CWO has reported great success using a sensory-based approach for scheduling day-to-day activities for self-care, work, and leisure.

Parents are a key part of therapy. By practicing the techniques at home, actions become behaviors, and real change occurs. Over time, parents see their children able to do things, like sit at the dinner table and attend sporting events and activities that seemed impossible before therapy.

The opportunities are endless and limited only by imagination. Working together, staff members can help the persons served move from being overwhelmed, anxious, and upset to being calm, socially interactive, and able to take part in a meaningful day.

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing is how the brain registers, interprets, and uses information from the sensory systems—vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, body awareness, and balance—at the same time. The human brain is bombarded by a continuous flow of information from these systems, and it must decide how to sort and understand the information and what to do with it. The ability to make adaptive responses depends on adequate sensory processing.

Sensory processing disorders can create highly disrupted lives and make completing basic skills, such as working and social interactions, a severe challenge for individuals. It is difficult for persons to respond appropriately as their nervous system is not ready for the flow of sensory information to their brain.

About Community Work Opportunities

Community Work Opportunities (CWO) serves more than 300 adults with developmental disabilities in the Canton, Michigan, area. The organization’s vocational programs include job coaching, life skills building, micro-business, community integration, and job development.

CWO is available for consultation to assist organizations with developing strategies and environments regarding sensory processing disorders and challenging behaviors that interfere in a person’s daily life.

CWO’s parent company is Quest, Inc.,, based in southeastern Michigan. Quest provides residential and vocational support services to promote inclusion, maximize independence, and improve the quality of life for adults and children with disabilities.

About the author

Elaine  LaMontagneElaine LaMontagne, director of vocational services at CWO, has worked with individuals with developmental disabilities for more than two decades in schools and residential and vocational programs.

Her background includes presenting trainings and workshops on sensory integration, micro-business development, and job development. She also consults with organizations and families about developing programs to serve individuals with challenging behaviors.

(Historical Newsletter Articles,Employment and Community Services)

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