A common question I get is how to teach a child with autism how to stop vocal stimming. When a child needs to be quiet during certain activities, vocal stimming or scripting can be disruptive.
What is Stimming?
Have you ever been to a lecture where the material is way too easy? Or maybe you’ve been to one that’s gone completely over your head? What do you do? Perhaps you doodle, play with your hair, or scroll through your Facebook newsfeed on your phone. This is the equivalent of people with autism engaging in self-stimulatory behavior (otherwise known as “vocal stimming”).
We all stim. In fact, our solitary leisure activities are actually stimming. For example, stimming behaviors include shooting hoops, playing the violin, or watching reality TV. These repetitive behaviors keep the neurons in our brain firing while we are not meaningfully engaged with others or working on a task where we need to concentrate.
Since children with autism spectrum disorder usually have poor language, social skills, and are sensitive to sensory input, some kids with autism engage in stim behavior for long periods each day. These stim behaviors are often very disruptive across a variety of settings.
Stimming can take very different forms. Some kids might engage in stimming by rocking their bodies, hand flapping, or by making loud vocalizations. Kids with higher language abilities might script lines from movies, build the same Lego structures over and over, or watch the same YouTube clips for hours.
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Some stims, such as head banging or eye-poking, can be dangerous or even life-threatening. I started with a 2-year-old client several years ago that banged his head repetitively on hard surfaces for 3 or more hours per day and it was difficult to stop him. It caused an open wound on his head. With proper ABA/VB intervention and with regular supervision and oversight by me as the BCBA, we were able to get this young boy’s head banging down to under 5 minutes a day and his head wound eventually healed.
Replacing Harmful Behaviors with Functional Behaviors
As both a BCBA-D and a mom of a son with autism, you might be surprised to learn that unless a stim behavior is dangerous, I almost never work on decreasing minor stim behavior directly.
Instead of focusing on decreasing the stimming (rocking, moaning, scripting, etc.), I work on improving language and learning skills and eventually replacing very odd and immature stim behaviors with more socially appropriate leisure activities.
I also suggest that if there are activities that verbal stimming (also known as vocal stimming) is high and disruptive, to stop the activities or add additional supports so the child can be more appropriately engaged. This could be a church service, inclusion math class, or some other activity that takes up some time.
The key to stopping a stim behavior is not to focus solely on stopping one behavior. Instead, work towards reducing stimming and replacing the behavior with something functional and equally valuable.
Top 5 Questions About Stimming and Scripting
In this segment, Kelsey and I take to Facebook Live to answer 5 of our most common questions about stimming and scripting.
1. What is Stimming and Scripting?
Did you know everyone stims? Stimming is just a self-stimulatory behavior that we use to keep our brains busy when we aren’t engaged. In a typical developing person, this might mean doodles, scrolling our phones, or practicing alone with a sport or instrument. In individuals with autism, stimming may look like rocking, banging, or dumping, or they may script or have vocal stimming.
2. Why do kids with autism stim and script?
Children with autism are often delayed or lack language, leisure, and social skills. Many typical developing individuals will have stims that look like typical activities in these categories. Because these skills are delayed in children with autism, they resort to more primitive stims to keep them engaged or communicate a feeling. Much like babies who bang toys, shake rattles, and babble to keep themselves busy.
3. Does stimming always mean a child has autism?
While stimming can be a sign of autism in conjunction with other signs like delayed speech, no pointing, etc. Stimming does not always equal autism. As we mentioned, stimming occurs in everyone and can simply convey boredom, fear, pain, or excitement. If stimming becomes dangerous, excessive, or disruptive and occurs with other concerns and delays, then you should seek further assessment for autism.
4. When is stimming a problem, and when should it be left alone?
Stimming is often NOT a problem; many times it is a safe outlet to keep your child engaged. However, if it is a dangerous, repetitive activity like head banging or loud vocal stimming, that prevents your child from participating in group activities, you definitely want to change and reduce those stims. If stimming becomes excessive, disruptive, impeding on the learning of the individual or others, or dangerous, it should be addressed.
5. How to reduce stimming and increase skills, when stimming is disruptive?
Apply the Turn Autism Around approach. First, get an assessment so you can see when and how often those stims are occurring. Second: Plan. How can you use the stimming to your advantage, insert yourself, and even use stims as reinforcement? Third: Teach. For example, does your child like spinning? Have them in a spinning chair and have spin breaks in between teaching. Finally, take the data and keep going. The idea is to not hyper focus on the stims, teach your child using my child friendly approach to build up their language, leisure, and social skills.
- What is stimming and scripting?
- Is stimming a sign of autism?
- What is vocal stimming?
- When does stimming become a problem?
- How to reduce stimming and increase skills?
- Using the Turn Autism Approach to tackle disruptive or dangerous stims.
- Why do kids with autism stim?
- Does everyone stim?
- Can stimming be a good thing?
Mentioned In This Episode:
- Autism and Stimming: What is a Stim?
- Assessing a Child with Non-speaking Autism: Hot Seat #7 with Zulekha
- How to Deal with Autism Meltdowns: Hot Seat with Zulekha Part 2
- Should You Use Chew Toys for Kids with Autism?
- Regressive Autism and Learning How to Rebuild Skills with Ruth Cassell
- Does My Toddler Have Autism or Is It a Speech Delay Due to Covid Isolation? : Interview with Rachel S.
- How to Stop a Toddler from Throwing Things and Hitting Me – Solving Problem Behaviors
- Stimming – Dr. Mary Barbera
For more information on how to reduce stimming, download my cheat sheet with 6 Steps to Reduce Minor Self-Stim Behavior in Children with Autism.
Ready to reduce verbal stimming in 6 steps?