Assessment of Emotional Skills

In these sections we look at the totality of the emotional system and how the emotional and sensory systems:

  • manage and filter input
  • maintain homeostatic states of alertness, mood, arousal related to learning and relating
  • govern attention, inhibition, stepwise thinking
  • influence perceptions, expectations
  • form awareness of the intentions of the self and others and the meanings of events
  • displays of emotion are understood by the IP and used by the IP as signals of “predispositions of behavior”

Since a fundamental purpose of functional analysis of behavior is to develop intervention, the assessment of emotional function also becomes important as a predictor of the effects certain intervention choices will have when implemented.

Emotions can be qualified according to theoretical, ordinal stages of development as can cognition and language. Keep in mind that the domain of “emotional function” encompasses a spectrum of more specific subdomains, just as cognition can be heuristically divided into memory, attention, reasoning, etc. In general, developmental assessment in any domain can be divided and subdivided in many ways and in increasingly finer discriminations of subdomains. Below, we have listed the subdomains we find most useful:

Temperament and Personality Factors

Temperament is defined, as a person’s a person’s general mode of reaction to sensory stimuli; their general patterns of arousal, stress, and recovery from stress; their general patterns of mood and stability/instability of mood; their patterns of sociability (e.g., a tendency to explore the environment and relationships with vigor and boldness v. with caution and reluctance), and; their general activity level. Temperament is thought of as genetically/biologically driven in large part, and because of this, the environment tends to have either a moderating or exacerbating effect on temperament. Analysis in this section can help you identify sensory or arousal factors that are not matched well for the demands of the environment. Also, if sensory and temperament factors play very significant roles in the patterns of behavior, then intervention at the sensory level can be implied. Finally, certain types of intervention are better suited to different temperaments.

3 main temperament types:

  • Easygoing: This IP generally has a reasonable and measured response to stimuli. It is easier for this type of person to remain calm or be easily comforted in the face of challenge or change. This person is neither hyposensitive nor hypersensitive to sensory stimuli. She is more likely to have a positive and steadier baseline arousal level and a relatively mature executive control apparatus.
  • Slow to Warm-up: This IP generally is wary or cautious around new people or experiences. He may actually become quite warm and exuberant once he becomes familiar with situations. This IP can either be hypersensitive and afraid of input, or hyposensitive and difficult to arouse.
  • Difficult: This IP is frequently irritable, experiences extremes of mood or affect, is inconsistent or disorganized, is easily overwhelmed, and can be difficult, rigid, or controlling. This IP is almost always hypersensitive.

The IP’s temperament does not exist in a vacuum. The concept of “goodness of fit” has to do with a IP’s temperament and other characteristics such as motivation and levels of intellectual and other abilities, and whether or not they are adequate to master the successive demands, expectations, and opportunities of the environment.

Goodness of Fit

The most important match has to do with the Student’s temperament and those of Caregiving Stakeholders such as Parents, Teachers and other natural Guides. In general, good matches are complementary rather than identical. For instance:

  • A Student with a difficult temperament is probably best matched with a Teacher with an easygoing temperament, and most poorly matched with a Teacher with a similar temperament.
  • A Student with an inherently anxious, slow-to-warm-up temperament is also probably best matched with an easy-going Teacher — one who can be encouraging and patient at the same time.
  • A Student who is too easy-going, perhaps apathetic, incurious, unassertive, etc., is probably matched best with an energetic and outgoing Teacher.

Sensory, Arousal, and other Self-Regulatory Factors

Sensory: Information in the sensory sections has a lot to do with the function of the person’s central nervous system, as well as higher – interpretative functions of the brain. has to do with the qualitative manner in which the individuals register and respond to sensory stimuli. Functional Assessment must rule out or address possibilities that sensory processing issues (and subsequent effects on arousal, alertness, learning readinesss and behavioral organization in general) are or are not related to behavior.

Sensory Processing: Sensory processing involves the body’s sensory apparati – its “sensors” (nerves in the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, inner ear, joints and ligaments, etc.), that convert wave and chemical information into signals for the brain to interpret. Stimuli activate sensors (such as when light waves activate neurons in the retina), which begins the process of sensory registration. Activations of the sensors is converted into chemical-electric energy that travels through neurons by way of chemical messengers. There are potential sources of difference or distortion anywhere along the chain of evens that occurs when stimuli contacts a sensor, and the brain’s final interpretation of the event.

Sensory registration has to do with how efficiently signals get picked up, sent, and noticed by the central nervous system. Sensations send signals that cause some change in the body – which may or may not be perceived at higher levels such as feelings.

e.g., hyperstimulation increases the probability for escape-motivated behavior; under-arousal increases probabilities of inattentive and distractable behaviors; ideal levels of stimulation increases probabilities of arousal states conducive to attention, learning and memory and task performance.

Questions to consider…

Can this individual be both calm and alert in the presence of this stimuli? Can this person achieve arousal and attention states optimal for engagement or learning in the presence of this form of stimuli, or is the stimul dysregulating or disturbing somehow? Describe how? Describe how conditions of under or over stimulation in specific or combined sensory domains increases or decreases probabilities of “sensory-seeking-related” or “sensory-avoidaing-related” behavior.

Does the individual have unusual thresholds for registering sensory stimuli?

Can this individual be both calm and alert in the presence of this stimuli? Can this person achieve arousal and attention states optimal for engagement or learning in the presence of this form of stimuli, or is the stimul dysregulating or disturbing somehow? Describe how? Describe how under or over stimulation, seeking or avoiding stimuli influences behavior.

Are these thresholds quite high in order for the person to “register ” sensory stimulation. In other words, does the individual take a lot of stimuli input in order for his or her nervous system to respond? Does this person’s behavior represent somehow an intention to intensify or “seek” this form of sensory input? Are high levels of sensory input needed in order for the individual to achieve homeostatic arousal levels?

At what levels does this form of stimuli become overstimulating to the point of increasing probabilities of sensory stimuli avoidance behaviors?

Perception: Perception requires not only awareness of a sensation, but a mental interpretation of it. Perception is the feeling associated with the sensation. The feeling we get is produced by the brain, not the body part involved. It is the minds interpretation of a sensation.

Does the IP even know how he or she feels – let alone describe the feeling?

Many individuals with developmental, emotional or psychiatric (behavioral) disorders do not register, modulate and feel sensations accurately. This affects their abiliies to coordinate their actions and to find coherent patterns among sensory experiences. They may feel happy but behave as if angry.

Conception: Conception is required in order to talk about feelings. It involves not only recognizing a feeling, but being able to associate it with events in which the IP typically experiences them; to think of it and describe it in terms of experience; to put a label on it and describe it to others and to evaluate the results of actions

Abstract Thinking/Abstraction: Concepts can be compared and contrasted; the person can think about thinking; the person can relate thinking to other patterns of thought and characteristic patterns of thought noted in other people (perspectives; intentions); inferences can be made from patterns that allow the formation of hypotheses about “what could happen if…” – even if there is no way for the individual to test or experience it first hand; the person can understand finer gradations and gray areas of thinking – the person is better able to handle uncertainty; ambiguity

Regulation of Arousal, Alertness, and Attention

This can be redundant with your assessment of sensory/arousal factors (below), as well as aspects of your assessment of cognitive function (above). Therefore, in this subsection, you want to describe the means (actions, behavioral forms) in which the Student manages arousal, alertness, and attention.

Basic Arousal Theory

Various brain functions control determine how one feels, and one of the primary purposes of behavior is to keep one’s own level of arousal and mood adjusted to maximize one’s sense of well-being in a given situation.

There is no single, optimal range of arousal. Think of arousal as being more or less of an “optimal” match with the demands of the moment. Guides of arousal theory often refer to the fluctuation of arousal throughout the day by using the metaphor of a “thermostat” or “thermometer” or even a “little car.” This metaphor requires some explanation, but I can see how the basic notion is useful for children. The problem is that thermometers or thermostats often show “optimal ranges;” with red zones indicating “too high” and blue zones indicating “too low.” This doesn’t take into account the axiom that “optimal” really means “optimal for the situation.” When being violently attacked, the highest level of arousal – fight/flight, is optimal. When trying to go to bed, the most optimal level is very low. Therefore, the thermometer/thermostat metaphor is best qualified as applying only to the present situation – that there are different optimal settings for each situation.

For instance, a very high level of arousal and awareness would be appropriate for crossing a busy street. This level of arousal still allows cognitive control (thinking), but it might be too high for concentrating on a task such as reading. A Student who is functioning at too high of a level of arousal is impulsive and distractible.

An even higher level of arousal, commonly referred to as “fight – [freeze or] – flight” or crisis level arousal, does not permit thinking — only reacting. Blood flow is directed away from the brain and to the muscles for fighting or running. Only the lower, fast acting, reactive systems of the brain are at work. This is very important to remember when suggesting problem-solving to Guides. They must be counseled to not attempt problem-solving while the tie a Student is highly upset or melting down. This Student is in a fight-flight state and cannot be reasoned with at all. This level of arousal is optimal only in cases where a threat to survival is involved. To make an absurd comparison, the state of arousal that is optimal for watching television would be deadly when being attacked by a dog.

Rough continua for thinking about arousal


Sleep → Watching TV → Listening to Music  → Cuddling  → Pleasure Reading  → Doing Routine Tasks (Dressing, Eating, Cleaning, Walking…)  → Waiting →  Active Reading  → Planning/Concentrating/Problem Solving  → Social Interaction  → Arguing/Disagreeing  → Intensive Feelings (Fear, Joy, Disgust) → Fighting → Fight-Flight

There are several primary factors affecting arousal.  Each of them is present to some degree at all times, but one factor usually is a “driver” or “main determiner” of arousal:

Sensory Input

Sensory input is remarkable when an indifiable form of sensory input can be identified as an antecedent condition that either cues or triggers a neurological and behavioral response that is meant to regulate that particular input, or it seems to have a significant influence on ongoing behavior patterns.

Various forms and levels of sensory input can drive arousal up or down.

  • Importantly, the same forms and levels of sensory input can affect different people in different ways (they have different abilities to filter and modulate the input). In other words, the same type and level of sensory input might not even register in some individuals, might make some more calm, some more alert, and some overwhelmed.Additionally, the same individual,  may experience the same range of reactions mentioned above differently depending on underlying mood states and temperament factors.

Mood states set thresholds differently for sensory stimuli’s effect on arousal.  In good moods, people have higher thresholds and an easier time filtering; in bad moods, individuals have lower tolerances and more difficulties with ignoring stimuli obnoxious to them.

For instance, the tactile and appropriate deceptive input from massage can have the effect of lowering too-high arousal from stress, or for some children who are under sensitive (see below), deep massage can increase alertness. Another example could be how the effect of someone playing a trumpet in your ear would affect your arousal. In this case, the trumpet playing would drive your arousal to a point where you could not concentrate on anything else.

Sensory input processing is implied in almost every behavioral response, somehow, either in the present or by history, in cases of identified Sensory Integration Dysfunction. SID is one of the mechanisms that causes deviance in the developmental pathways of many children, especially those with diagnosed SID, Autism Spectrum; Mood, or Conduct disorders. Look into the early histories of the IPs and you will often find that their difficulties alerting and soothing were among the reasons the person was ever presented for evaluation. Look for old Occupational Therapy reports and preschool evaluations that indicate the child experienced unusual reactions to sensory stimuli.

As children’s nervous systems mature under the conditioning and shaping influences of the environment and the forces of genetic unfolding (epigenetic development), reactions may become less intensive and less disruptive to overall behavioral function.  The problems, especially if they were indeed more severe or very severe in early childhood, will still [very likely] affect the level and type of influence they exert on behavior or predispositions of behavior.

If you discover that there were problems early on of a significant impact (especially if they resulted in a referral for medication or sensor-integration therapy), then you have to rule out those effects on the behaviors of concern.

Sensory Modulation

The term for the way one’s nervous system filters and regulates sensory input is called sensory modulation. Problems of sensory modulation and regulation are generally inherent in children who have autism, ADD or ADHD, or any other neuroregulatory disorder.

The ability to modulate/regulate sensory input effectively follows its own developmental sequence. Infants and very young children are more sensitive to fluctuations in sensory input and less able to handle it, so they require caregiver control of the environment and intervention (e.g., picking the baby up and stimulating when the baby is bored or under aroused, and putting the baby down and shutting the lights off when the baby is overstimulated).

This is especially true of children who were born premature, prenatally exposed to toxic substances, or whose mother suffered extreme stress during pregnancy.   In the same way, the genetic predisposition towards the slow maturation of the sensory neuroregulatory systems of the brain is a primary characteristic of autism.

Many children show from infancy, patterns of explosive startling and activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System caused by sensory stimuli obnoxious only to them. They can experience long periods of unresolved distress that shows cascading effects on self-esteem; reactivity; and relationships with others through development.

Relative inability to console their child can cause effects on parenting and on personality, as explained in the article.

The Concept of aSensory Diet

Everyone has one. It consists of all of the things that you do to manage your alertness, and is unique. For instance, most people wake up in the morning in a state of under-alertness. What they do to become alert is a part of their sensory diet: some people go for caffeine, others might use a warm or a cold shower, others might turn on the TV or radio, etc.   This helps them wake up, and the things they’ve done can be called “strategies.”

  • Up-regulation: Any stimuli, behavior or behavioral strategy that results in increasing alertness, interest and arousal
  • Down-regulation: Any stimuli, behavior or behavioral strategy that results in decreasing anxiety, high or overwhelmed arousal states.  Calming.  Recovering from stress.

Everyone’s sensory/arousal diet is different as different stimuli affect us differently.   For instance, caffeine might work for me – but might give someone else a headache.  For others, caffiene may have no effect at all or even make them tired.  Another person might find jogging to be the most preferred and effective strategy.  Watching TV might help me fall asleep, but it might keep another person from sleeping, etc.

Arousal strategies[1] can have different effects at different times on the same person. For instance, taking a Student to a trampoline to help him “regulate up”[2] when she can’t seem to pay attention in a learning situation, but if she does this when she is upset – it helps reduce her anxiety (a “regulating down” or “down-regulation” strategy).

Also, if it is germane, you might want to comment on the amount of neuroregulatory dysfunction the IP seems to be coping with (e.g., “Mark seems to be constantly in search of stimulation in the form of jumping, running and crashing into things, and other forms of proprioceptive/impact stimulation. Thesensory seekingnature of these behaviors implies that he is likely experiencing hypoarousal when he does this, and the way he is able to maintain his alertness and attention is to be constantly moving and obtaining impact through his joints and muscles.”).  And of course, you would identify the mechanisms, dependent or independent

Dependent, Independent and Interdependent Forms of Neuroregulation

One useful way of doing this is to look at an axis of motivation that goes from passive/dependent (externally driven) forms to active/independent (internally or self-regulated) forms. You would also look at how the individual uses relationships and social interaction to maintain states of well being (e.g., wanting to be around someone calmer; getting a hug; using social interaction to replace boredom and underarousal).   On this axis, the types and amount of effort the IP (vs. the Stakeholder/environment) exerts to regulate arousal would be important to describe.


The IP does not seem to be aware they’re hypo- or hyperaroused. The IP needs cuing to engage in beneficial neuromodulatory actions, and sometimes opposes others’ efforts to get them to do it. The IP may engage in frequent and intense neuromodulatory behaviors, but has no self-knowledge and is disorganized in their efforts. Often, the natural neuromodulatory behaviors they exhibit are inappropriate, ill-timed, or they interfere with learning.[3] Guides must take specific steps to “regulate” the IP’s arousal. The most common form is prompting for attention, which has to be repeated frequently.

Some environments are more or less set up for children with arousal dysfunction. They actively manage and plan for the Student’s “sensory diet” (see below) which can include sensory routines and/or the use of sensory-modulating equipment.


With intervention (the “How Does Your Engine Run”[4] sensory/arousal curriculum is a good example), the Student learns to recognize and label their own neuroregulatory state, and then learns and implements appropriate neuromodulatory strategies.When children are younger and newer to the curriculum, they require adults to help them label their neuromodulatory state, and to teach and remind them of the appropriate neuromodulatory strategies.

As they become more familiar with the curriculum and their individualized sensory diet – but due to immature self-awareness/self-knowledge, they still need cues and reminders, but they tend to implement neuro-modulatory strategies as taught.


The individual recognizes their current arousal state as a mismatch with levels of alertness and attention optimal for the current situation.   Recognizing the mismatch as a need for neuromodulation (implementation of neuromodulatory strategies), the individual selects an appropriate strategy.

The person is aware of their own sensory diet, and independently engages in readiness and other arousal management strategies prophylactically.


Social relationships and social interactions help us modulate our sensory arousal.  The effects of pleasurable social interaction can be calming or interesting and arousing.  If we have the relationship skills, we can rely on others to help us become interested in things or to calm down when we’re upset.

Homeostatic Function

People engage in sensory-regulatory behaviors with a primary goal of achieving “homeostasis.” Homeostasis is “felt” or perceived as a feeling of both calmness and alertness – a sense of well-being.

When the brain senses that it needs input — it seeks input in order to go back to the state where it “feels right.” The brain/body, as does any other biological system, dynamically reorganizes itself upon the arrival of new information (sensory input) in order to maintain a state of positive equilibrium.  This is a “steady” or “homeostatic” state that is meant to be stable — a state that the brain/body system seeks to return to when the environment or internal processes alter that system in any way.

The assessment of neuroregulation is a summary of how the IP is able (or not) to achieve homeostasis; what typically disturbs homeostasis; what he or she has to do in order to achieve it or recover it, and; how the IP can rely on independent strategies (self-calming; self efforts to bring arousal up) or co-regulation (how or under what circumstances the IP benefits from relationships that serve or help to calm or provide stimulation [alert]).

An analogous process is at work in basic metabolism. Metabolism describes a number of internal systems that work together to manage the input and output of energy. The input consists of nutrients, and the output consists of any internal or external action that the body does to keep itself alive.

Homeostatic “Set Points”

Anyone who has tried to lose weight simply by dieting is likely to have experienced the “plateau” effect. This happens when continued reduction of calories no longer continues to produce reductions in body weight. The reason for the plateau is that the body has sensed that the reduced intake is causing the body to lose weight, and it goes about taking corrective and protective measures to maintain or return to its “normal” or “homeostatic” state. Since dieting alone does not increase output of energy, internal systems adjust themselves so that they require less input to maintain the same level of output of energy.  Some call this a metabolic “set point.”

Sensory seeking and avoiding behaviors serve a homeostatic function. When the brain/body system perceives that it is not getting enough input, it seeks input. Conversely, when the system perceives that it is receiving too much input, it avoids input. It is important to recognize that what is “not enough” or “too much” differs between individuals depending upon their sensitivity to various forms of input.

Everyone engages in behavior that regulates sensory input all the time. We tend to seek environments that do not require us to make constant (undue) adjustments, or to have to make drastic efforts to seek or avoid sensory input. Normal environments tend not to cause us undue stress. “Boredom” is the feeling we get when our environment is not providing enough stimulation, and distress is a feeling we get when our environment produces too much stimulation.

Homeostatic behaviors become referral concerns when they are extreme (in frequency or intensity), bizarre, or disruptive. They can be taken as signs that there is biological immaturity in one or more of the sensory regulating systems (the sensory domains listed in the table below), and/or there are problems with obtaining a unified and coherent perception of the environment due to problems integrating perceptions.

Note: Not every repetitive behavior is due to mere understimulation. The behavior may indeed serve to provide sensory stimulation, but it may not necessarily be “sensory-driven.” It may in fact merely represent “circular” behavior — that is, a static system of behavior that consists of a short motor plan (usually a single step action), and repetition of that motor plan without variation.

Behaviors typically associated with Sensory Regulation (Automatic Functions)

Seekers” and “Avoiders

  • Seekers” are children who are generally undersensitive to sensory stimuli. They have either higher thresholds for activation of sensors due to physical or medical reasons, or they require higher or more intense amounts of certain stimuli in order for the stimuli to “register” as sensation in the person’s brain and body.  They tend to engage in behavior that is meant to provide increased sensory input or feedback to the brain.
  • Avoiders” are children who are generally oversensitive, high-strung, or easily frustrated or agitated, and they tend to avoid stimuli in order to decrease or maintain low levels of sensory input to the brain.  In other words, they have difficulties modulating the registration and perception of a particular form of sensory stimuli, a strategy they are likely to use is to avoid or block out that form of stimulation.

Table: Self-Stimulatory/Ritualistic/Repetitive Behaviors

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Auditory stimuli

Hypo-registration of Auditory Stimuli: Auditory Seekers

Hums, makes repetitive noises
Runs toward sounds constantly or impulsively
Bangs objects for the sound
Gets obviously excited at certain sounds or is attracted to certain sounds to an unusual degree

Hyper-registration of Auditory Stimuli: Auditory Avoiders

Covers ears with loud noises or auditory clutter
Runs away from sounds or screams when it’s too loud
Becomes disorganized when in noisy places
Doesn’t like it when more than one person talks at a time
Hates getting hair washed or cut
Avoids certain rooms.

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Visual/Spatial stimuli

Hypo-registration of Visual Stimuli: Visual/Spatial Seekers

Can wander aimlessly or appear disorganized
Self-isolates or stays in the same place out of fear
Has to touch or feel everything
Fascinated with sand or water
Lines up or collects objects
Flaps hands
Pours water or sand and watches with fascination
Repeats sections of videos
Fascinated with spinning or rotating objects

Hyper-registration of Visual Stimuli: Visual/Spatial Avoiders

Is excessively wary or gets upset around new people or new places
Self-isolates or stays in the same place out of fear
Avoids physical types of play
Fascinated with sand or water
Lines up or collects objects
Gets upset in visually “busy” places
Looks at things out of the corner of eyes
Avoids eye-contact
Likes everything the same color
Avoids certain rooms
Gets upset when furniture or paint is changed
Stares at only one thing, blocks out the rest of environment
Repeats sections of videos
Cries during videos or cartoons

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Vestibular stimuli

Hypo-registration of Vestibular Stimuli: Vestibular Seekers

Puts self in odd positions
Holds body in odd positions
Spins, rocks, jumps and otherwise craves movement, may be difficult to satisfy needs for movement
Likes going faster, higher
Can twirl and not get dizzy
May move too quickly, leading to being accident prone

Hyper-registration of Vestibular Stimuli: Vestibular Avoiders

Doesn’t like being picked up or being off of the ground (gravitational insecurity)
Doesn’t like being upside down or in odd positions
Resists going on slides, swings, merry-go-rounds
Uncomfortable with movement
May refuse to go on escalators or elevators
Nausea when riding in the car

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Proprioception stimuli

Hypo-registration of Proprioceptive Stimuli: Proprioceptive Seekers

Jumps a lot
Crashes and bangs into things on purpose
Chews on things
Likes being hugged tightly
Is often hyperactive and impulsive
Wants to wrestle all the time
Pushes or pulls on things a lot
Bangs things

Hyper-registration of Proprioceptive Stimuli: Proprioceptive Avoiders

Eats only mushy or soft foods Prefers crunchy or hard foods
Hugs only certain people
Avoids physical types of play

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Tactile stimuli

Hypo-registration of Tactile Stimuli: Tactile Seekers

Is often hyperactive and impulsive
Has to touch or feel everything
Taps things for the feel of it
Fascinated with textures
Plays with lotions, shampoos, etc.
Fascinated with sand or water

Hyper-registration of Tactile Stimuli: Tactile Avoiders

Avoids physical types of play
Doesn’t like being touched or held
Dislikes certain fabrics or carpets
Wants clothing buttoned all the way
Dislikes any lotions on skin
Hates getting hair washed or cut

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Gustatory stimuli

Hypo-registration of Gustatory Stimuli: Gustatory Seekers

Eats foul tasting things
Prefers salty or spicy foods
Eats only sweet or fried foods

Hyper-registration of Gustatory Stimuli: Gustatory Avoiders

Eats only bland foods
Prone to picky eating and perhaps more serious feeding problems
Eats foods only of a certain taste or texture

Behavioral Strategies meant to regulate/modulate Olfactory stimuli

Hypo-registration of Olfactory Stimuli: Olfactory Seekers

Does not mind or notice strong smells
Seeks strong smells
Plays with urine or feces

Hyper-registration of Olfactory Stimuli: Olfactory Avoiders

Gets uneasy around strong smells
Avoids kitchens or sites of eating or food preparation
Avoids bathrooms
Can object to smells of perfumes, detergents and soaps, etc.

It is important to note that “hyper-registration” of stimuli does not mean that it is a processing strength. It just means that the gating and filtering of the stimuli is easily overloaded. As you can see in the table above – it is this weakness in the filtering, modulation and interpretation of the stimuli that has the effect of making normal amounts of stimuli “overloading,” and that predisposes the individual to escape related behaviors or “avoiding.”

Considerations of Sensory Assessment

Before summarizing the sensory data, it is important to note that while sensory input has a large role in regulation of all body systems, and subsequently can have foundational and pervasive effects on emotional, psychological and behavioral function and a person’s entire pathway of development – arousal and attention are probably more often affected by the [emotional] meaning of events to the individual.   In other words, emotions such as interest, fear, anger, joy and such have much more immediate effects on arousal. Subsequently, emotions are more powerful influences on arousal than sensory input factors. In fact, mood states affect our tolerance thresholds for sensory input. Individuals normally bothered by certain stimuli can ignore it when highly interested. Boredom therefore, provides a natural setting condition for paying more attention to sensory stimuli, especially those that are annoying or obnoxious to the IP.

  • Behaviors directly related to sensory seeking or avoiding functions: These behaviors can range from reactions to severe impingement and severely dysregulating stimuli that result in catastrophic of defensive, fight or flight behaviors, to mild irritation that causes difficulties in concentration, arousal or mood regulation.
    • We note that there are conditions that can lead any of us to states of extreme hyperarousal or hypoarousal. For instance, when we try to cross a busy street – we are very highly aroused. Our senses are focused more intensely, but on a fewer, “most-relevant” set of stimuli. Our range of responses available to us at the moment would be constricted as well because of the needs for concentrating. You might not be able to say, hold a conversation on the phone with someone while doing this. Hyperarousal tends to sharpen the senses, but it can also lead to panicky (overwehelmed), manic (overstimulated) states in IPs with arousal and/or mood regulation difficulties.These can be evidenced in some way from infancy into adulthood in some cases. The general pattern of sensory dysfunction in development is that it the dysfunction is more acute and pervasive in infancy and early on in development. If the environment has a reasonably positive and modulating effect on the maturation of the child’s nervous system, emotional, psychological and behavioral development should result in a more resilient individual. As the IP gets older they develop better tolerance and adaptations for the stimuli, and less potential for the stimuli to dysregulate their arousal, moods and behavior.The following is a very brief discussion of Automatic Reinforcement and Automatice Functions of Behavior, which is covered in much more detail below, in the sections describing how to determine the functions of behavior (the purposes it serves for the IP; the IP’s expectations and intentions; the consequences the IP seeks to produce or reduce by engaging in the behavior)
    • Automatic Functions of Behavior: These behaviors are “self directed and produced.” The “function” or purpose of doing these behaviors is to produce effects in the self-environment (not necessarily the overt or public environment). By definition, behaviors with automatic functions are to produce reinforcement for the self and are not intended to produce social effects. They are commonly referred to as “self-stimulatory” behaviors, but this is a very constricted notion of this domain of functions. For instance, individuals seek knowledge and novel experiences out of a sense of internal curiosity that produces immediate consequences of some kind of satisfaction. They often do it alone, such as when reading books, watching television, doing projects, etc. The “private” effects these behaviors have on the individual may eventually be shared, but they can often exist in an entirely private pattern of antecedents, behaviors and consequences.
      • Automatic Positive Functions of Behavior: The IP’s behavior produces consequences that add stimulation (Postive = Adding something to the environment in ABA, in this case: the behavior produces stimulation experienced [at least] by the self). These are ususually evidenced as direct seeking of a sensory stimulus or behavior related to it (it could be a motor activity where the activity itself is the reinforcer: both the motor activity, and the proprioceptive input are products of the behavior – self produced and self directed)

Curiosity can produce “private,” “self directed and produced” and therefore automatic forms of reinforcement. We all engage behaviors that serve automatic functions regularly. The question, in terms of whether behaviors with automatic functions require intervention has to do with the impact the behaviors have on missing better opportunities for reinforcement. When behaviors are hypothesized to have Automatic Positive functions, the best choices for replacement teaching would produce similar forms of sensory reinforcement, but they may embed replacement skills into more natural, social, reciprocal or developmentally apppropriate contexts.

  • Automatic Negative Functions of Behavior: The IP’s behavior produces consequences that reduce stimulation (Negative = Removing something from the environment in ABA). These are ususually evidenced as direct avoiding or taking actions to reduce or eliminate the effects of a sensory stimulus: the behavior somehow reduces obnoxious stimulation or internal feelings experienced [at least] by the self). Taking an aspirin to eliminate the internal sensations of a headache would produce private consequences of relief from the pain. Pain was removed by the behavior of taking the aspirin.directed at the self; that occur even if no one else is around, and that do not appear intended to affect anyone else are likely to have what are called “automatic fiunctions”.” They are called automatic because the IP can produce his or her own reinforcing consequences from the behavior. For instance, chewing gum can be self-satisfying and reason enough to do it even when others are not around. Chewing gum provides “private reinforcement.” The IP can choose to share the reinforcing or pleasing consequences of self-reinforcment.

Behaviors that produce consequences that are “privately reinforcing,” that result in changes of feeling, which can range anywhere from changes in movement of position to deliberatly engaging in entertaining or stress relieving activities to regulate one’s own arousal, mood, and general sense of well being (homeostasis). People engage in many different forms of behavior that is directed at regulating some internal state. For instance, a feeling of boredom can lead to intentions of finding things to do. Feelings of being overwhelmed can lead to actions related to seeking quiet and space. A person might take an aspirin to regulate an internal feeling of a headache. We can drink a cup of coffee to make us feel and behave more alert. Systems theory applies here: actions are taken to regulate a system, which could be internal, external or both.

Information for Sensory Assessment Section

This section contributes to hypotheses regarding sensory and/or perceptual functions of behavior primarily. Sensory experiences can take on social and developmentally altering consequences, so it is import to tie sensory issues identified either early on or in the present or both to the behaviors observed in the present. In addition to informing theories of referral behaviors, the information in this section is also useful for choosing goals and objectives for replacement skills, and helping anticipate which teaching strategies would be more or less likely to work.

Relevant Points of Information for the Sensory Assessment Section

  • Automatic Functions of Behavior:
    • The Behavior’s Effects on Arousal, Alertness, Calming
    • The Behavior’s Effects on Mood
    • The Behavior’s Effects on (or costs related to) Shifting Attention, Concentration, Flexibility and Fluid behavior
    • The Behavior’s Effects on (or costs related to) Coordinating Actions, Response flexibility, responding, forming intentions and implementing steps of action
    • The Behavior’s Effects on (or costs, deficits related to) learning processes

Provide remarkable information regarding the IP’s sensory profile, perhaps using the rubric above.

What is important is how atypical sensory function might predispose referral behaviors, or is otherwise relative to the referral concerns.

Emotional Motor Systems

Sensory perception guides movement, and movement requires the continuous updating of sensory coordinates.  The movements one makes and the actions on the world (operating on the world in Skinner’s vernacular) change the scenery.  As you walk through space, your position in relation to other things in the environment change. Y our actions on objects change the position, shape, or moving trajectory of them.  The feeling of your weight and balance shifts as you make you movements.  The environment also contains other – sometimes many (think Basketball) moving objects.

That’s just vision. All of our senses must continuously update the body. When you add salt to your soup, you change it, and your senses should tell you when to start or stop adding salt.

But most importantly, your own movements send messages to your brain about your position, your balance and weight shifting, the effects of the force you exert with your movement, etc. (For more information on this, please refer to the post on Motor Planning). Therefore, it is more correct to think of perception/action feedback loops when looking at behavior.

Emotional motor systems can also be evaluated based on Piaget’s epistemology of system complexity, differentiation and integration:

  • Sensorimotor: Movement is not fluid; it has an experimental, tentative, unsure quality. Pathologically, movement can exist in loops: repetitive, habituated or compulsive forms
  • Pre-Operations: Movement is more fluid but largely based on newly embedded behavioral scripts (chunks of behavior; “folded in” [Vygotsky] behaviors that have already been learned). For instance, movements like sitting up, walking, reaching no longer have to be learned after they’ve been fully acquired. These movements then get embedded or folded in to more complex routines so that you can focus on the more complex or dynamic (changing/novel/moving) aspects of the task. Deficits in feedback loops (motor planning; perception/action cycles) can result in the IP becoming unreasonably wedded to routines, or to develop tendencies to do them the same way every time
  • Concrete Operations: Movement, thoughts and reactions are fluid but can only be based on reality. There is a tendency to move in ways already learned and not to develop novel movements as needed.
  • Formal Operations: Novel actions can be conceived almost entirely through internal mental processes, without ever taking them physically. Actions and possible reactions of many steps can be manipulated entirely in the mind before acting.

Understanding Emotion Parameters

The domain of “emotions” encompasses many things, but there is a hierarchy that moves up from emotions to the full conscious awareness and discrimination of feelings for the purposes of communication and choosing actions.

  • Emotions are merely changes in internal body state (the neurochemical/hormonal soup) – although we may not perceive (notice; feel) it. Children with sensory integrative dysfunction may not recognize correctly what emotion they actually feel. They may show affects such as smiling when they are angry and engaged in aggressive behavior. So emotions are not necessarily sensed or felt, and different people have varying levivity to these changes and are more or less “emotional” to use the common vernacular.
  • Sensations represent the lowest level of sensory perception, and sensations may or may not be at the level of conscious awareness (a worm will move when the light changes, but it is doubtful the worm has a “self” that is aware of it). Our sensory receptors and the brain circuitry that “registers” (filter, modulates, attends to and brings to awareness) differ from person to person, and they also differ in the same person according mood (e.g., a person in a good mood may ignore something that would normally bother them, such as the hum of a fan)
  • Feelings are the conscious perceptions of emotions. Neurochemical changes and brain circuitry make one feel sad or happy or interested or bored, etc. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the person can readily identify or label the feeling, but they are definitely experiencing something and noticing it. An unnoticed emotion is not a feeling.
  • Subject becomes Object: Experiencing an emotion means that you are the subject of it, hence the term “subjective” as in “subjective experience.” But this doesn’t necessarily involve understanding why one feels that way or how to communicate what or how one feels. When you can identify the feeling as distinct and you can make it available for thinking about it – it is now an “object” for mental inspection. You say that you are happy, recognize the internal perceptions associated with it that are going on – than you are in a position to think about it, recognize the signs of the emotion in others, and possibly label it (that ability depends on language development in part).
Emotional Stimulation and Arousal

About the nervous system/behavioral system’s responses to emotional stimuli. Emotional stimuli trigger emotions. Emotions predispose certain response sets or “likelihoods” or “action predispositions.”

Emotional Interest

Perhaps the most important thing to know about intervention and learning is that emotions — the emotional systems of the brain, are responsible for allocating resources for attention and memory.  When the emotional interest is high, fewer trials, fewer exposures to a stimulus, result in what is called “potentiation[5]” or learning.

A very common symptom of neuroregulatory disorders is inefficient or dysfunctional allocation of mental resources. You see this in children where they are either very interested, or not interested at all in things — and they seem to have little ability to be “mildly interested” in anything. When they are interested in something, there may be what is called “hyperfocus.” When they are interested in something such as a videogame, they cannot seem to unlock their attention or shift mental resources from one stimulus to another. These same children, as soon as their interest wanes even slightly, experience what is called a “negative cognitive shift” towards almost complete apathy.


Mood is a baseline state, which is the result of basic neurochemistry (all people have a range of default mood states — except in cases where there is a mood disorder), interacting with the current environment and historical antecedents (see above, and below: Episodic and Implicit Memory).

Mood is a prime factor in determining thresholds for the toleration of sensory input, as well as stress.  Therefore, mood has a lot to do with arousal.  This information is useful for Guides to be aware of when making choices to intervene in one way or another.

Episodic and Implicit Memory

Prior experience is also a determinant of arousal. If one is about to repeat an experience that caused great interest or pleasure, or on the other hand apathy or displeasure, it is very likely that the brain will prepare or immediately shift into a state of arousal that is similar to what was experienced before. Also, prior exposure to a stimulus increases the likelihood for successful attending, and on the other hand, over exposure tends to reduce attending.

Regulation of/Recovery from Stress

Describe here how long it takes and how much effort on the part of caregivers that it takes to assist the IP in “recovering” from episodes of elevated anxiety and distress (as evidenced by loss of behavioral organization in an emotionally stressful situation).

Neurologically, emotional self-regulation is a matter of the development of neural mechanisms that do the job. We are born with almost no ability to neuroregulate on our own. The newborn/young infant requires being picked up and stimulated, and if overstimulated – put down and provided a [sensory/physically-] protective environment. As the IP’s neurological systems mature, they develop increased ability to regulate themselves. The “strategies” they use can be innate or implicit (people are more or less vulnerable to stress)

Some IPs experience meltdowns – complete or almost complete losses of behavioral organization (e.g., screaming, flailing, combativeness, etc.). If this happens frequently – ask about [birth or neuroregulatory] prematurity, extreme sensory integration problems, as well as emotionally disturbing factors such as early deprivation of empathic care (see Attachment Theory, below), or trauma or abuse.

When a person melts down – what types of effort and how long does it take for the he or she to calm down?
Do they require physical or environmental restraint?
Does recovery take longer than a few minutes?
If left alone, can the IP calm down? – or do they tend to escalate until a Caregiver comes and restrains them (see Attachment/Means of Problem Solving, below)?

Another to describe is how the Caregiver typically responds, and whether or not they consider their strategies effective. Sometimes, it is what the Caregivers do that actually escalates levels of anxiety that the IP can control – to levels where the IP no longer has control:

When 4-year-old Mariel gets frustrated, she is quick to anger and rage, stomping her feet, whining, and crying… If left alone, she will remain in the same area, and continue to rage until she finds something else that interests her. Along with her difficulties regulating negative emotional states, she is also quite distractible, so it is likely that she’ll find something else if left alone or if given something else to occupy her interest.

However, Mariel’s father cannot stand the sound of her screaming. This makes him very agitated and he is likely to respond with his own impulses to quell his own feelings: usually with a very sharp command “No” or “Stop Crying.” This parental misattunement often has the effect of making Mariel even more frustrated and angry – which is manifest in an escalation of her behavior. This further frustrates her father, and he escalates his behavior to threatening to give her “something to really cry about,” such as “time out” or even a spanking. Too often, this has the effect of adding fuel to the fire, escalating to increasing levels of mutual anger and power struggle, and eventually for Mariel – a meltdown.

The above example provides food for thought. Since the genes involved in neurodevelopment are experience dependent – in other words – they require exposure to the environment to calibrate and become expressed – think of how Mariel’s brain is calibrating. The calibrating environment is one where experiences of distress are typically followed by added levels of stress and a loss of control. The process then carries an “implicit memory”[6] that tends to shape perception in the present. That is, simple conditioning (repeated travel over the same neural circuits) leads her brain towards an efficient pathway that leads to the quick association between stress and loss of control. A secondary but highly important effect would be a fear of stress that leads to defensive responses, which could, in interaction with temperament and environmental responses become behaviors such as helplessness, clinginess, coercion, arguing, lying, etc.

Finally, the example demonstrates how Mariel’s brain is systematically denied the experience it requires to self-soothe.” This is commonly seen in our referrals. Because crying, whining, tantrumming, and aggression are so punishing to some Guides, they respond impulsively to quell the behavior. Usually – these types of responses are unduly harsh and misattuned (i.e. there is little attempt to help the Student understand her emotions and “feel that she is being felt,” and there is no teaching of coping skills such as problem-solving). Too often, and especially with children with developmental disorders, they do not learn the lesson that the Teacher has rationalized that they’re teaching. Instead, the Student develops stronger but more disturbed defenses such as fighting back (fear and anger) or giving up (depression).[7]

For this reason, our interventions for tantrums always include at least three steps: attuning to their IP (listening to the feelings), assisting/facilitating “self- or co-regulated soothing,” and then, when the IP is calm enough, engaging in problem-solving teaching.

Sensory Perception and Input, as Related to Emotion Regulation

The mind uses sensory input (often by seeking it out or avoiding it), to regulate between states of hypoarousal (i.e. fatigue or boredom), to high states of alertness or hyperarousal (i.e. upset, irritable, defensive, or highly vigilant).

The mind also uses sensory input (often by seeking it out or avoiding it), to regulate between affects of depression and elation [and/or mania].


Self- or co-regulated soothing

Sensory regulation (or re-regulation) is critical in recovery from stress. As mentioned above, when an infant experiences stress that his Teacher cannot relieve (no matter how competent she may be), this chronic experience of unresolved stress can lead to a brain that is “wired for stress.” Small things can trigger all-out fight/flight reactions in these children, because they have not developed adequate internal, neurologically based, stress recovery mechanisms in their brains. Once startled or negatively aroused, stress reactions can escalate to extremes quickly, and it may take abnormally long periods for the Student to recover.

Note: When tantrums (particularly explosive tantrums) are a primary concern, always assess stress recovery characteristics. Duration and Intensity Recordings (see Length and Duration, below) are usually the best method of quantifying stress recovery characteristics.

Neurological Mechanisms

Regulation of the mind-body system is accomplished through interplay between ‘executive control functions’ of the frontal lobe of the brain, as well as the basic neurological motor of the brainstem and midbrain. Some children have never matured the earliest functions of basic motor output within the brain. These children can often be irritable, explosive, or high-strung. On the other end of the range, some children under- or hypo-register input and can be restless and hyperactive.

Ability to Respond Flexibly

“Response flexibility is the opposite of a ‘knee-jerk reaction.’”[8] This has to do with the ability to “…sort through a wide variety of mental processes, such as impulses, ideas, and feelings, and come up with a thoughtful, non-automatic response. Rather than automatically reacting to a situation, an individual can reflect and intentionally choose an appropriate direction of action.”[9]

Some children have immature or damaged development of the frontal lobe executive control functions that control higher thought, planning, and the focus of attention. This means that emotions emanating from the brain stem (lower) and limbic (central) systems of the brain are poorly modulated (if at all) by thinking, and the result is reactionary, impulsive behavior. In other children who are normally capable of sustained attention, working memory, planning and forethought and other executive controls – can have their frontal lobes overwhelmed by brain stem/limbic energy (a primary symptom in attachment and post-traumatic stress disorders), resulting in a loss of control that is difficult to differentiate from the other type.

One way of differentiating is by the intensity and quickness of the response. If you see that the Student responds quickly to minor triggers with explosive behavior or meltdowns – you are either looking at the conditioning history (ask about the history of the behavior), or something about the IP’s faulty neurology, or both.[10]

Children who are rigid aren’t necessarily melting down, although they could if a certain threshold for toleration is crossed. Rigidity is an inflexible response, usually manifested as defensive reactions such as protesting, arguing, and otherwise resisting change. In this case, speed of mental processing is usually the problem. In children with developmental disorders, poor neural organization and integration of various separate circuitries result in a bottlenecking of mental energy flow and thinking. The resulting anxiety leads to reflexive, defensive behaviors and resistance. Rigidity in these children can be compensated with schedules, behavioral charts, etc., but this should not be confused with developing true mental flexibility. This requires relationship-based, dynamic systems interventions that work directly on response flexibility.

Assessment of Attachment Relationships

What is attachment?

The word attachment is used frequently by mental health, child development and child protection workers but it has slightly different meanings in these different contexts.

The first thing to know is that we humans create many kinds of “bonds.” A bond is a connection between one person and another. In the field of infant development, attachment refers to a special bond characterized by the unique qualities of the special bond that forms in maternal-infant or primary caregiver-infant relationships. The attachment bond has several key elements: (1) an attachment bond is an enduring emotional relationship with a specific person; (2) the relationship brings safety, comfort, soothing and pleasure; (3) loss or threat of loss of the person evokes intense distress. This special form of relationship is best characterized by the maternal-Student relationship.

These special relationships are vitally important for the current and future development of the IP. A solid and healthy attachment with a primary caregiver appears to be associated with a high probability of healthy relationships with others while poor attachment with primary caregivers appears to be associated with a host of emotional and behavioral problems later in life.

In the mental health field, attachment is used loosely has come to reflect the global capacity to form relationships. For the purposes of Functional Assessment of Behavior, attachment capabilities refer to the capacity to form and maintain an emotional relationship while attachment refers to process of forming a relationship bond. An IP may have an “insecure” attachment or “secure” attachment, for example.