Spitting Interventions for Students with Autism

Spitting can be a challenging behavior. There are specific interventions you can take to stop all sitting behavior in your classroom. Read to get the right intervention for you!

Figuring out why the behavior is happening

Let’s start off with the obvious- spitting can be a behavior none of us want in our classrooms. It is messy, can make others sick, and usually a behavior we want to stop happening as soon as possible. However, there are SO many reasons why spitting can happen and this is going to be the first step you need to take before you can even think about setting up an intervention.

There are four reasons why all behavior occurs. Those reasons are attention seeking, escape or avoidance, sensory or automatic, and gaining access to a tangible. If you want to read a blog post that dives more into each, you can read that here.  When you see a child who is spitting, it is important to first rule out if there is are any underlying medical conditions that are causing it. This is important because no matter how many interventions you put in place, if it is something that is truly out of their control due to medical issues- you may not be able to change it and need to have a different approach. This is one of many reasons why figuring out the function of the behavior is an essential first step.

If you determine that the behavior is due to seeking attention or escaping a task or demand, buckle up because I have a whole list of interventions you can try out with your student. These interventions are going to be primarily targeted for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, however, many of these interventions can work for others exhibiting this challenging behavior as well.

So how do you figure out the why?

Now this is a much more in-depth question than we can get to with this one blog post, but I can’t give you the interventions without giving you a way to determine the why. The best way to do this is to track the antecedents and consequences surrounding this targeted behavior. 

If you can identify triggers, you can do things to prevent the triggers or help the student learn new behaviors to do that are more appropriate. Learning the consequences, or the things that happen after the behavior occurs can help you figure out the exact reason why behavior is happening so you can match the intervention. 

For a free data tracking tool, click here. This is a google form that allows you to collect this ABC data on the go for easy collection methods! 

Behavioral Interventions for Spitting Behavior

1. Teaching Socially Appropriate Behavior

Some students may be spitting because they get a reaction from their peers. Now sometimes their peers may laugh and something their peers may say “Ew.” Either way, they are getting a reaction from them- and that is incredibly reinforcing- so they continue to spit. What do we do in this situation? Teach appropriate replacement behaviors.

This could look like teaching them how to tell jokes to get their friends to laugh or how to ask a friend to play. These are much more appropriate ways to get their peers’ attention.

Maybe they start to spit when they get frustrated, this is another time to teach a socially appropriate behavior. However, this is going to look different than if they are seeking positive reinforcement from their peers. You could teach them how to take deep breaths as they start to become overwhelmed. If deep breaths doesn’t work, you can teach grounding exercises or learning how to ask for a break.

If you need supports in teaching calming skills, I have just the thing for you- it is a task box that provides hands on calming techniques that are easy and fun to use.

Maybe they are spitting to get your attention. You can teach them better ways to get your attention such as raising their hand, using their augmentive alternative communication device to ask for help, or even using a ‘I need help’ card.  If students have communication difficulties, you need to be sure that the way they get attention is just as easy as the spitting was. Otherwise they will resort back to the spitting since it is easier and possibly more effective at getting attention.

Remember, these behaviors must be taught explicitly to the student. This should be done with visuals to help support student learning. Once the student learns these behaviors, it is imperative to reinforce these behaviors through providing attention. You can set up a specific reward system if you would like, but remember they are after your attention- so give it to them through lots of praise when they are doing a more appropriate behavior.

If your student is seeking attention and you are constantly telling them not to spit or raising your voice, you are possibly reinforcing that behavior- even if you do not mean to! The student just cares about getting your attention, whether it is positive or negative!

If you student spits to get out of work, this is going to require a different type of skill set to be taught. You need to teach your student how to ask for a break. This can be an easy process, but so often teachers make some small but critical errors. Read this blog post to make sure you don’t make one of them!

Teaching Incompatiable Behavior

Spitting could be a self-stimulatory behavior. This means, they do it because it feels good to them or is reinforcing. They may like the way it feels to spit, the way the spit feels, or another reason. A way to combat this is to teach a behavior that is incompatible. What does this mean? It means give them a behavior that can give them that sensory feedback they are seeking, and does not allow them to spit at the same time.

Sounds tricky? Think of it this way- maybe the student likes the spit on their hands, what if they are giving a fidget or therapuddy to play with during these times. Would it busy their hands and prevent them from spitting? Or maybe they need something to do with their mouth- could they have a piece of gum or candy? You could also talk with your speech therapist about some oral stimulation tools. They may simply need chewy tubes or need something with more stimulation. SLPs can be a great source of information on this.

Use social narratives and contingency maps

Social narratives, otherwise known as social stories, are a great way to teach these new social skills. They lay out exactly what to do instead of spitting. Social narratives are easy to write and can be done fairly quickly. It is important to talk in the first person and personalize it to your student as much as possible. 

In your social narrative you can talk about the behavior that needs to stop, why it needs to stop, and what students can do instead. These should be quick and can be reread often to reinforce the skill.

Similar to social narratives are contingency maps, and personally- my favorite of the two. These are visual representations of the rules and what will happen if they choose to engage in specific behaviors. There is a whole way to write a contingency map which I have laid out for you over here on this blog post.  

Whether you choose to use social narratives or contingency maps, these can be added into your daily routines for a constant reminder of the rules. If you need to change this behavior quickly, then it is a good strategy to read it daily.

Reinforce other behaviors

Now we briefly talked about reinforcing other behaviors under the first strategy. When you teach them a new behavior, you need to reinforce it with the same thing that they were getting with the problem behavior. However, you can also add in a reward system.

You can try adding in a token economy. These are great because you can reward a variety of behaviors. When you provide the token, it is giving attention as well as praise.  When the students fill up their token board they can earn a reward they are working for. This can stop a behavior that is attention seeking as well as rewarding that behavior additionally with another reward. This can be a tangible reward like candy or iPad time or non tangible reward like a walk outside or time on a swing.

If you want to try this strategy out, I have some fun token boards that you can grab for free. They are a great visual support to add into your behavior plan with a student. 

Visuals


Visual supports are always going to be part of a behavioral intervention with Autistic children.  They rely on visual cues because language is difficult to process and too much language can lead to a sensory overload. You can simply have a visual of no spitting to remind the student not to spit. It is always better to have a positive visual- or something to do instead of not, but having this reminder and being able to silently point and remind the students can help them remember the rules.

Need some for your classroom? Check out all of my visual supports here!

Sensory Diet

When talking about a sensory diet we do not mean the food the student eats. It means a set of sensory activities that the student does that help meet a sensory need and regulate their bodies. This is best created in conjunction with an occupational therapist, physical therapist, and speech therapist. Having the entire team on board it good for a variety of reasons. You can all problem solve what activities the student requires to prevent them from spitting and bring your own area of expertise to it.

With any intervention, it is important to keep data and review it to be sure the interventions you choose are working. You can continue to use the ABC data tracking sheet that you can download for free here. If your data is not changing, be sure to re evaluate and change as needed. 

The most effective way to stop any problem behavior, including when a child spits, is to figure out the reason why it is happening. If spitting is happening for a medical reason like a tooth decay, no matter the interventions you put in place you will not be able to fix that. That is going to require a doctor to help. Matching the intervention to the function is the best way to stop problem behavior in its tracks.

If your student is displaying this behavior at home, then you can share these same supports with your parents. It is important to have similar strategies at home and at school. If the interventions are too different, the student may start spitting more in one place and not in the other- and we both know we do not want more of it!

Need more behavior support? Check out some of these blog posts:

19 Tips for Defiant Student Behavior

Have a student that is always telling you no? Maybe they are refusing to work? Then you need to read this blog post and get 19 strategies you can start using immediately. 

Autism Behavior Consulting

Struggling with a student’s behavior? Need help now? Did you know I offer behavior consulting? And it doesn’t matter if we live close or far- we can work together in a variety of ways! Read this post about the different ways I can support you, your student, and your entire team.

Using Break Cards in the Classroom

So you figured out your student is spitting because they are trying to get out of a task- great! Now you can teach them how to appropriately ask for a break. Learn more in this post.

Need behavior resources?

You can join me and other teachers inside the Behavior Support Hub. This is a monthly support system where you get different downloadable resources each and every month. You can get things like: reward systems, teaching social skills supports, and more. The best part? You get to request anything that you need specifically! Need a social narrative for a certain behavior- go ahead and request it to be added for future months! If you want to see what it is all about, click the button below so we can see you on the inside.

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