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
On 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).
Some 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.
Why 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.
Most 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.
Some 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 this behaviour.
- The child may get attention when participating in this behaviour.
- 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.
While 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.
When 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.
We 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 intervention programme.
However, there are basic principles of ABA that can be applied immediately by family members:
- 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 other people.
- 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.
In 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.