self-stimulatory behaviour can be difficult to discriminate from meaningful
speech, especially in children with very mild autism. As explained in the first
article of this series, speech is the expression of communication
and thoughts through spoken language (Frost and Bondy, 2002). It is
also important to note that speech directed to another person needs to be meaningful
the other hand, verbal self-stimulatory behaviour falls under the DSM-5
(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) Criteria B symptom (i)
which is stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or
speech (for example, simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping
objects, echolalia and/or idiosyncratic phrases).
examples of verbal self-stimulatory behaviour include echolalia (repeating words),
scripting phrases from movies or song lyrics, and speaking idiosyncratic
phrases (non meaningful sounds that can include squealing, screaming and other
strange sound effects. In short, it is a form of making sounds with our mouth
without any meaning and purpose.
does a child with autism engage in self-stimulatory behaviours? Well firstly,
it is a sub-symptom of autism, but it is important to note that it does serve a
function and may increase or decrease in certain situations.
children with autism are reinforced by the self-stimulatory behaviour itself.
Therefore the more practice they have participating in this behaviour, the
stronger this behaviour becomes.
factors that further strengthen and reinforce verbal self-stimulatory behaviour
are listed below:
- The behaviour itself is rewarding to the child.
- The child may be able to avoid tasks by participating in
- The child may get attention when participating in this
- The child may not have any other skills to occupy his or
herself and therefore participates in self-stimulatory behaviour.
- The child may not be able to communicate when he or she is
anxious or overexcited and may participate in more verbal self-stimulatory
behaviour during these times.
there are some schools of thought that individuals with autism should be
allowed to participate in stimming as much as they want, we need to realize
that stimming of any sort is direct competition with the ability to attend,
focus and engage. This directly impacts a child’s ability to learn, to
communicate and to interact with others. Additionally, stimming of any sort
socially isolates children with autism.
we work with a child with autism, one of the first things we do is to help
reduce self-stimulatory behaviour and increase meaningful skills. This can be
quite successfully incorporated into a good quality Applied Behavioural
Analysis (ABA) programme.
at EAP wish that there was a simple answer we could write in a blog or produce
in a video to help reduce verbal self-stimulatory behaviour but as autism is a
spectrum disorder and every child on the spectrum is different, our team of
Supervisors need to see each child individually in order to develop a specific
However, there are basic principles of ABA that can be applied immediately by family
- Firstly structure up a child’s day. This will ensure that a
child is occupied in meaningful activities and has less opportunity to ‘stim’. With
good quality ABA programmes, a child with autism typically needs to the
beginning stages of treatment.
- Increase a child with autism’s meaningful skills. This includes
communication, the ability to participate in appropriate leisure activities, and learning from his or her environment. Children with autism have the potential
to learn rapidly if given the right treatment and the more skills a child has
the less likely they will continue to perseverate on verbal stimming.
- Increase meaningful bidirectional communication.
Communicate all expectations to your child and if necessary, simplify
expectations so your child can be successful and less anxious.
- Structure up ‘stimming zones’. This has been very
effective for some of the children who struggle with verbal stimming. We gave
the child specific “Silly Talking Time” as well as specific “Silly Talking
Zones” and the child could request for that time. This really helped the child
understand that verbal stimming was not acceptable in public settings and with
- Do not react or give attention when your child starts to
verbally stim. This could be reinforcing and further increase the behaviour. Instead
redirect your child to a meaningful activity that could distract him or her
from that behaviour.
closing, do remember that the more time your child has to practice and repeat
these behaviours, the more established these behaviours will become and the
harder it will be to reduce in the future.
We hope this article is helpful, do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need to meet with one of our Supervisors for more clinical support.
- Frost, L. & Bondy, A. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System. Pyramid Education Products, Australia.