Use S.E.A.T. as a Tool to Understand Your Child With Special Needs


What does S.E.A.T. stand for and why can it help you evaluate your child’s behaviors?

S.E.A.T. stands for Sensory, Escape, Attention, and Tangible. It is my understanding that SEAT is a tool used to help understand your child’s behavior by attempting to break down undesirable  behaviors. SEAT helps you discover the purpose or reason or explanation behind a behavior, or why it occurred and what lead up to that behavior.

Why is this important?

There are so many reasons why our kids behave the way they do. Why does an autistic child flap their hands? One reason is that response is a response to a stressful situation. Why does another child bang their heads against something repeatedly? That child may not understand how to interpret pain or that child may simply be receiving some form of input that they somehow “enjoy.” There are many types of behaviors that categorize our kids as having autistic behaviors.

To further help understand SEAT, consider these questions:  If a child had a colossal meltdown, why did it happen?  What lead up to that behavior?

I learned about SEAT at an autism conference a few years ago. Interestingly, I Googled the acronym with the word “autism” and didn’t find anything. I searched for my notes from the conference and, after locating them, I reviewed what I had learned.

SEAT is a way to help a teacher, aide, parent, facilitator, behaviorist, or anyone else working with your child examine why a child reacted to something or had a “bad” behavior. What really happened that led up to that behavior? Furthermore, when you categorize a behavior and then track them, you can (theoretically) come up with a game plan on how to minimize it.

Here are some examples of things that our kids sometimes have to deal with that may be a contributing factor(s) to a behavior. Imagine one of our autistic kids walking in a room for the first time. Is the room excessively bright? Are the walls covered with posters and pictures and signs, making the room, “loud?” Are there a large number of people in the room?

Imagine what happens to a child on the autism spectrum when he or she is sensitive to any of the above. And, that child walks into that room and suddenly has to be able to handle that situation? A situation that immediately puts stress on them, may be scary and/or it may put their body in an OT-like reaction. A need is created and it is one that may not be appropriate for a social situation but it is one that it needed for that autistic person.

That type of situation is a Sensory reaction. S is for sensory. If a behavior occurred and the antecedent was sensory-related (like any of those three examples) you may have to adjust the room itself to help your child work through that situation. Turn down the lights or remove a few things from a wall or two. They made need a room with less people. Either way, you may have found out why that behavior happened and you can now help the child.

Escape is a situation where your child simply doesn’t feel up to the challenge of dealing with you or a situation. They tune out or disappear. It’s easier for them to go away sometimes and our kids do that very well.

For example, one thing our child did when he was little was line up cars. I often felt he didn’t even know I was in the same room with him.

To counteract a possible “escape” situation, we were taught to interrupt his line of cars, put toy animals on top of one or two cars, do anything we could to… well… upset him. Yes, we were taught to find a way to upset our child. Then, he had to deal with us. This led to him having to acknowledge that we were in the room.

I still do this to a certain degree. If I think my child is far, far away and has not heard a question I have just asked him (usually more than one) I make up an answer. Not all of my answers even make sense, often they don’t. I’m being silly on purpose. My silliness, though, makes my child respond to me! We actually have a game we play were we try to “one up” each other in the world of silly. He responds to it so well. Laughs, engages. I know that he likes this and I use it. I bring him back from his escaping behavior so he has to deal with the person in the room.

How do you find out what led to escape?

For escape, I think it’s more within the nature of autism itself. But, I also believe you can mix in something we all can relate to, the ability to be somewhere else for a bit. Haven’t you ever asked anyone to repeat something because, “Sorry, I wasn’t listening?”

Yet, with our kids, that “escape” mechanism can last for long periods of time. They also have a tendency to want to stay there. They fight being pulled out of escape, which may lead to a behavior.

If your child is big on escape, try to gently pull her out for short periods of time. Find a way to connect with her world and then meld the two worlds together. Just…be silly!

All kids want a certain amount of attention. And, really, when you think about it, if our kids do something to try to get our attention, part of that behavior should be… applauded. Yes, I said it…applauded.

If a child with autism is concerned about getting his mother’s attention, yes, I think there’s something positive in that. They’re connecting with another human being! And, that is always a challenge for our kids and, yes, this is to be applauded on one level.

BUT, do we want the negative behaviors associated with not getting what they want when it comes to getting our attention?

My child has trouble understanding the word, “wait.” He doesn’t like that word at all. He has often admitted to us, “I’m not a good waiter.”

So, our child will interrupt us. Often.  He wants our immediate attention.

How do we respond to this behavior?

We ask him to wait. When he persists because he really demands our attention, we hold firm on trying to teach him that the world cannot always stop just for him. He will have to sometimes stand there and wait until Mommy is off the phone.

We are also encouraging the use of “excuse me,” which is finally beginning to be used with some consistency. At least, if he needs to interrupt, using an “excuse me” is more socially acceptable.

For me, tangible is probably the hardest part of SEAT terms to understand. What is tangible to a child? And, how do I interpret if something tangible lead up to a behavior?

I looked up tangible in the dictionary and found the following: “Capable of being touched, material or substantial, something real and not imaginary, definite and not vague or elusive.”

It seems to be that my son’s needs are always tangible. A few years ago, he had very little imagination. He had to be engaged in imaginary play and often didn’t like imaginary play because imaginary play does not really have a concrete purpose. Remember how literal our kids are. They have trouble with the imaginary.

Today, his imaginary play abilities are much better but they are almost always focused on one of his obsessions. For example, he’s big on making up his own Transformers stories because the action figures and the TV shows and movies of Transformers are one of his obsessions. Those figures are almost…real to him. That’s how his obsessions work, they’re that important to him that they border on the real.

So, can something that is so important to a child with autism something that seems real to them, be an antecedent to an unexpected behavior? Try taking away one of our son’s Transformers. He’s not a happy camper.

But, am I getting it right? Could tangible simply mean that your child’s seat (the actual chair kind) is too close to the noisy heater and that’s why he can’t hear the teacher? This happened to our child. After I suggested moving our child to a seat where he didn’t have the teacher’s voice competing with the noisy heater, his classroom behavior and his attention level improved.

Tangible in this case was the very real location of my child’s physical seat.

What about volume control? Volume control is a problem for our kids. They often simply do not realize how loud (or soft) they are speaking. They need to be told to lower or raise their volumes. But, is it a tangible reason that could lead up to a behavior?

It’s not really a sensory need because they aren’t producing the noise as a bodily reaction to stress. It’s not escape. Perhaps it’s attention but is volume control tangible?

To me, children on the spectrum may understand volume control better than we think. It is something they get to control in a world where it often seems like they get to control very little. So, if a behavior arose due to volume control, was the reason tangible?

Consider the opposite which is how they react to loud noises. That reaction is sensory but may also be tangible because it is something real. There is an annoying input happening inside their heads that bothers them.

Other examples of tangible could be your child accidentally bangs their hand but they do not know how to communicate “ouch.” Or, a child has a headache and, again, that child doesn’t know how to ask for relief. Or their backpack is too heavy and they don’t know how to tell somebody it bothers them and then they whack their hand and those two things lead to a behavior. It’s all a bit related, I think.

We have asked our child’s aide to use SEAT in the communication log. We hope SEAT will help to explain why she feels our child had an issue on any given day. We feel that, over time, this type of tracking of data may prove useful to help lesson our child’s behaviors at school. If he had four “S’s” in a two week period, for example, then we may be onto something. Perhaps you’d find SEAT useful, too. Give it a try!

In my next blog, I’ll discuss why the collection of data is so useful.




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