Stimming, which is a nickname for “self-stimulatory behavior” is a repetitive behavior such as head banging, hand flapping, rocking, or making noises or sounds that helps a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to self-soothe.
In the case of vocal stimming (or verbal stimming), the child might make noises such as groaning, grunting, high- pitched screeching, squealing, humming, or repeating random words, words to a familiar song, phrases, or lines from a movie.
Why does vocal stimming happen?
Self stimulatory repetitive behaviors and movements can provide “sensory input” for children with ASD, helping them cope with anything stressful in their environment, or helping them to focus or express their feelings. It can be calming because it is a predictable behavior they control. In a crowded restaurant, a child with ASD might feel overwhelmed by the noise, and stimming would help them to ignore the loud sounds. Dr. Mary Barbera, a board certified behavior analyst, equates stimming to the activities we might do in our leisure time, such as playing an instrument or a sport.
The way this helps us to decompress after a long day at work is comparable to the child with autism being helped by vocal stimming. Vocal stimming usually happens with kids who are less advanced in their language and social skills, and it can be difficult to stop.
What can parents do to reduce vocal stimming?
Parents might wonder how to reduce verbal stimming. Experts suggest that parents or caregivers should only try to reduce the vocal stimming at the moment it’s happening if the repetitive behavior the child is exhibiting causes a problem.
If the behavior prohibits the youngster from learning, excludes him/her from social settings with other children, or if his/her stimming is dangerous or harmful to him/her or those around them, then the parent should intervene.
So, what strategies could parents take to try reducing autism vocal stimming? First, parents need to consider why the behavior is happening. Perhaps there are times when it happens more often? Observe the child to know what sets off the behavior and when/where it happens most. It is also important to speak to a psychologist or an education specialist who has experience in this area to rule out other reasons for the stimming.
Many experts suggest finding a similar behavior to the stim so that the child still feels soothed and receives stimulation but isn’t distracting other people with the sound. The replacement should be something appropriate that the kid can do based on their ability and age and something that is relevant to the setting. Some suggestions include humming a tune, blowing bubbles, or doing pretend play/singing songs that allow for making animal sounds.
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Others say to have rules for where and when the vocal stimming may occur, explaining this to the child while also recognizing the importance of the behavior being replaced in those settings. If the child is capable, teach them about social skills and manners and why some of these behaviors may not fit in some situations. Parents should look at how they interact with their child, finding ways to teach them to get the best reaction with the least amount of distress. Role playing or using a story to explain these ideas is helpful. It is important to go over those rules often, especially before certain social engagements which might prove to be overwhelming to the child.
If a parent knows in advance that an event will be overly stimulating, but there will be a time or an area for the child to do their vocal stimming, the parent should explain that to the child. Sometimes a parent may have to seek out a spot where the child will be able to vocally stim and relax.
Keeping an open line of communication with the child’s school as a partner is also helpful. A child with ASD may need a behavior plan set in place. They might also benefit from a 504 accommodation or an Individualized Education Plan or Program (IEP) so that they may have special services in the classroom or educational setting.
Along the lines of a behavior plan, it is suggested to have behavior or reward charts and to utilize schedules and calendars to plan for upcoming, and possibly stressful events. Warning your child ahead of time if a planned event has to change is helpful.
Also working into the child’s schedule a limit on screen time is suggested. Children love video games, and many with ASD have an intense attraction to these. While some educational games are fine, others can add to and increase unsuitable behaviors in social settings.
Some autistic children use vocal stimming to express their emotions, and parents should respond to those feelings. For example, a child who is happy to visit the zoo may begin to vocally stim. A parent can ask the child if they are making that sound because they can’t wait to see the animals, giving credence to the child’s feelings.
Dr. Barbera states that working to improve a child’s “language and learning skills” will help them to one day replace their inappropriate vocal stimming with “something functional and equally valuable.”
Vocal stimming is a behavior often seen in children with autism and, although it can be worrying for parents and cause many questions, it is not a cause for immediate concern. Recognizing when and why the behaviors are occurring, planning ahead for those occasions when it may happen, and replacing the behavior with a different, more suitable one in certain circumstances can help both parent and child.