Question:

What can you recommend to help an autistic student stop pacing? He is in the ninth grade and has been doing this for years. Recently, though, it has become more intense. He is in a special education setting within a typical high school environment. What would a sensory diet look like? I welcome any advice.

Answer:

To help an autistic student stop pacing, you first need to understand possible underlying causes. A behavior like pacing could be one of three things:  (1) a sensory-seeking behavior, (2) a stress relief method, or (3) a hobby/preferred activity. Since we can’t always be sure of what is causing it, tackle it from all three angles.

Sensory-Seeking Behavior

From a sensory standpoint, if he follows the typical pattern for autism, he is probably UNDER-responsive to vestibular and proprioceptive input, and that could be what he is seeking with all the pacing. So try to give him as much intense vestibular and proprioceptive input as possible. I would try to build in a longer sensory break, say 10–20 minutes every couple of hours. During these breaks, let him jump on a mini-trampoline, ride a bike, use a scooter, swing on a platform swing (if he has limited access to equipment, try heavy work “chores” like pushing heavy carts or carrying heavy boxes). Then during work times, use sensory diet strategies like weighted vests and alternative seating options to continue giving him the input he needs.

Stress-Relief Method

Since the pacing may be a de-stressor for him,  you may want to give him time to take a couple of long walks each day. It could be combined with a task like walking around the building to collect the recycling or gather the returned library books from several classrooms.

Hobby or Preferred Activity

In the case that it is a preferred activity, you could use it as a reward or choice activity. After completing a specified number of tasks or earning a certain number of tokens, he could be allowed to take a walk with an aide.

By addressing all three possibilities, you should be able to see a decrease in his pacing at inappropriate times. Keep me posted!

Best Wishes,
Gwen