Stimming in Autism: What Are Vocal Stims?

A man is holding a broom or mop handle and singing into it.

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What is Stimming?

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Stimming, also known as self-stimulatory behaviour, is behaviour that people with autism carry out.

Examples of stimming include the following:

  • Arm-flapping or hand-flapping
  • Finger-flicking
  • Rocking
  • Jumping
  • Spinning or twirling
  • Head-banging
  • Complex body movements
  • Nail-biting
  • Tapping an object
  • Twirling hair around fingers
  • Repeating words and phrases

Stimming also includes the repetitive use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band or a piece of string, or repetitive activities such as feeling a certain texture.

Stimming is also known as, “stereotypic” behaviour.

While most people stim in subtle ways, autistic stimming is more extreme because it differs from stimming by neurotypical individuals in terms of the type, quantity, and obviousness of the behaviour.

What Causes Autistic People to Stim?


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People with autism may stim for the following reasons:

  • As a form of enjoyment
  • As an attempt to gain sensory input, e.g., rocking may be a way to stimulate the vestibular (balance) system, whereas hand-flapping may provide visual stimulation
  • As an attempt to reduce sensory input, such as only making one sound to reduce the impact of a loud, distressing environment. This may particularly be seen in social situations.
  • To deal with stress and anxiety
  • To block out uncertainty
  • For coping with other strong emotions, such as fear, anger, excitement, and anticipation
  • To manage strong sensations such as noise, light, and heat
  • They are bored
  • They feel overwhelmed
  • To express frustration, especially if they have trouble communicating effectively
  • To adapt to an unfamiliar environment
  • To avoid certain activities or situations
  • They are under-stimulated in terms of a place not having enough sensory input
  • To reduce pain, such as hurting themselves in another way to take away the pain of bumping their arm, for example.
  • To self-regulate
  • To improve their mental health
  • To help them concentrate on challenging or boring tasks

What Are Vocal Stims?


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Vocal stimming, also known as auditory stimming, is self-stimulatory behaviour that involves the use of the mouth, lips and vocal cords. It can also involve the use of ears.

Examples of vocal stims include the following:

  • Repeating phrases that others say or quotes from films or television shows, or radio station jingles, i.e., echolalia
  • Repeating their own phrases, i.e., palilalia
  • Random humming or singing
  • Making or mimicking sounds
  • Groaning or grunting
  • Squealing or shrieking
  • Shouting, yelling, or screaming
  • Repeating specific sounds
  • Whistling
  • Tapping on objects or ears
  • Throat-clearing

While mannerisms such as random humming or screaming are known as vocal stims, echolalia and palilalia are known as verbal stimming. This is because vocal stimming involves the use of sounds other than talking, whereas verbal stimming usually involves speech.

The Impacts of Vocal Stimming for Someone with Autism


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  • While vocal stimming is not as dangerous as physical forms of stimming where people can hurt themselves, it can have an adverse physical, emotional, or social impact on some individuals, including those with autism.
  • It can distract people from their schoolwork or job.
  • Constant vocal stimming may prevent an autistic person from interacting with others. People who constantly vocal stim may not be able to participate in ordinary activities. They may also be excluded from the classroom, the workplace, and public spaces.
  • It may be distracting, frightening, or upsetting towards others such as friends, classmates, colleagues, or family members.
  • It can garner negative attention and cause autistic people with autism to be stigmatised, or socially excluded.
  • Vocal stimming can also lead to an autistic person to stim in a self-injurious manner.
  • Some people with autism think that trying to stop their stimming is unpleasant for them because it can make them feel uncomfortable when they cannot stim.
  • People with autism are often encouraged to hide or “mask” their stimming behaviour so they can fit in. Those without autism should instead make space for it in social settings. People without autism can choose to redirect the stimming behaviour to something else or accept the behaviour.

How Can Vocal Stimming Be Managed?


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Some keyways to manage vocal stimming in individuals with autism include removing triggers and stresses; establishing familiar routines; finding alternative outlets; and seeking professional support and advice. If a parent has an autistic child who vocally stims, avoiding punishment of the behaviour can also be beneficial for the child.

Remove Triggers and Stresses

  • Determine what is causing the person to stim and remove them from the trigger or the stress.
  • Provide a safe and calming environment for the person who stims.
  • If the person who stims attends school, putting them in a smaller class can help.

Establish Familiar Routines

  • Try to stick to a regular routine for daily tasks.
  • The routine can include times for schoolwork, studying or a person’s job as well as mealtimes, household chores, recreational activities, and relaxation.
  • Routines can ensure that people do not become over-stimulated or under-stimulated, thus reducing their need to stim.

Find Alternative Outlets

  • Give the person who stims an alternative method to their behaviour, such as a fidget toy.
  • Offer alternate activities that provide the desired effect. For example, the person who stims can play football in one hour and do some artwork in the next hour.
  • If a person hums or sings as vocal stimming, encouraging them to join a singing class may allow them to sing in an alternative way.

Seek Professional Support and Advice

  • Consider types of therapy such as applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy or occupational therapy.
  • Another option for stimming support is personal behavioural support. It may help identify the triggers of a person’s stimming and avoid them.
  • Family therapy can be beneficial for families that include a person who stims, whereas individual therapy is more suitable for an individual person who stims.

If you experience vocal stims, try taking our free autism quiz to see if you have any additional traits.

Blog Author

April Slocombe


Neurodivergent
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