Understanding Desensitization: Benefits & Ethical Considerations

June 5, 2024 - The Cornerstone Team

Understanding Desensitization: Benefits & Ethical Considerations

At Cornerstone Autism Center, we strive to support families and children through tailored desensitization programs. Desensitization is essential for helping children with autism navigate and tolerate situations that might otherwise cause them distress. 


What is Desensitization?

Desensitization is the process of making a hypersensitive individual less sensitive to specific stimuli. For children with autism, this treatment helps reduce strong physical or emotional responses to situations they find challenging. This process is critical for enabling them to participate in everyday activities and meet their basic needs.

Why is it Important in Autism Treatment?

Autism treatment often incorporates behavior analytic principles, such as differential reinforcement, extinction, shaping, and operant conditioning. These principles form the foundation of effective desensitization programs. By systematically reducing a child’s adverse reactions, we can help them engage more fully with the world around them.

Types of Desensitization


The disliked scenario is presented continuously until the adverse reaction ceases.

Pros: Quicker results, less preparation needed.

Cons: Potentially traumatic, difficult for true consent, highly aversive, higher potential for relapse.

Systematic Desensitization:

The child gradually progresses from tolerable to less tolerable situations.

 Pros: Less aversive, easier to implement, still effective.

Cons: Takes more time, and requires more preparation.

Steps in Systematic Desensitization

Observe: Identify behaviors that significantly impact the child’s ability to function.

Program Development: Create a step-by-step task analysis to introduce the child to the challenging situation gradually.

Introduce the Program: Start with the least aversive step and use positive reinforcement.

Practice Often: Consistent practice in various settings with different people.

Evaluate Progress: Monitor and adjust the program as needed to ensure the child is ready for each new step.

Real-Life Applications

Our systematic programs have successfully helped children achieve significant milestones, such as:

Getting haircuts

Participating in hygiene routines

Visiting the dentist or doctor

Trying new foods

Wearing necessary items like glasses or coats

Desensitization is a powerful tool for helping children with autism overcome barriers and engage more fully in their daily lives. By following a systematic approach, we can make these experiences less stressful and more manageable for the child and their family.

For more information, check out our webinar on systematic desensitization and blog on desensitization.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss specific scenarios, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Let’s work together to create a supportive and understanding environment for our children.

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June 5, 2024, The Cornerstone Team

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