, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 299-310

Sensory Extinction: A procedure for eliminating self-stimulatory behavior in developmentally disabled children

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This study was designed to investigate the role of sensory reinforcement in the motivation of self-stimulation. If self-stimulatory behavior is maintained by its sensory consequences, such as the proprioceptive, auditory, or visual stimulation it produces, then such behavior should extinguish when those sensory consequences are not permitted. The present study introduces a new procedure, Sensory Extinction, in which certain sensory consequences are masked or removed, to examine whether self-stimulation is operant behavior maintained by sensory reinforcement. The effectiveness of Sensory Extinction was assessed by a reversal design for each of three autistic children, and the results showed the following. First, self-stimulation reliably extinguished when a certain sensory consequence was removed, then increased when that consequence was permitted. This was replicable within and across children. Second, different Sensory Extinction procedures were required for different self-stimulatory behaviors, since the sensory reinforcers supporting them were idiosyncratic across children. Finally, regarding clinical gains, the data suggest that Sensory Extinction may be a relatively convenient and rapid alternative for the treatment of self-stimulation. The present findings extend the efficacy of extinction as a behavior-modification technique to instances in which the reinforcer is purely sensory. The implications of these results for the treatment of other forms of deviant behavior are discussed.

This investigation was supported in part by an Excellence Fund Faculty Research Fellowship from the University of North Carolina and grant no. G007802084 from the Office of Education. The author would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Drs. Edward Carr and Crighton Newsom on an earlier version of this manuscript, and the valuable discussions of Drs. Steven Hayes and Rosemery Nelson.