All About Vocal Stimming: What Parents of Autistic Children Need to Know

Your all-in-one guide to autistic vocal stimming!

We explain:

  • What stimming is
  • Why autistic people stim
  • How vocal stimming is unique
  • Ways to manage disruptive vocal stimming
  • Autistic-friendly alternatives to vocal stimming

Learn all about vocal stimming to better understand and support your autistic child (or self)!

What is autistic stimming?

Short for self-stimulatory behavior, “stimming” is any repetitive behavior that stimulates the senses

We all use repetitive motions to release anxiety or distract ourselves when we’re bored: things like twiddling thumbs, tapping fingers or feet, humming a merry tune.  Autistic stimming is set apart by the length, intensity, and frequency of our need to stim. 

Additionally, while autistic people and non-autistic people alike stim in response to emotions, autistic people also frequently stim because of sensations created by their surroundings.

Why do autistic people stim?

We stim to release energy. This could come from a variety of sources.

  • Anxiety
  • Boredom 
  • Pain
  • Happiness
  • Excitement
  • Internal hyperactivity
  • Under-stimulation
  • Over-stimulation

Stimming is sometimes described as a compulsion. It’s one autistic folks can try to resist, but this creates an internal “pressure” or “buzzing” sensation. When we stim, that feeling subsides. Stimming is calming for autistic people, providing relief from the pressurized energy building inside our bodies. 

Sometimes stimming provides mental clarity. A soothing sensation to focus on helps us process thoughts or emotions by grounding our bodies in the present reality. This is similar to the  5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, a common grounding technique therapists will recommend to improve the mind/body connection in moments of distress or overwhelm.

Examples of Autistic Stimming Behaviors

Apart from the stereotypical stimming like autistic hand-flapping, rocking, or head-banging, common stimming behaviors include:

  • Playing with fingers
  • Chewing on toys
  • Twirling hair
  • Chewing or licking lips
  • Biting cheek or nails
  • Tapping 
  • Stroking
  • Humming
  • Singing
  • Blinking
  • Swallowing
  • Tensing muscles
  • Bouncing
  • Spinning

What is vocal stimming?

When stimming involves the vocal cords, this is categorized as vocal stimming. 

So far, vocal stimming  is the only type of stimming not named for one of our senses (of which there are not five, but eight different senses!) 

Vocalizing is unique because this action causes both interoceptive vibrations in our throats,  as well as  sound we can hear with our ears.

Examples of Vocal Stimming:

Vocal stimming includes any self-soothing sound made with the vocal cords.

  • Talk
  • Sing
  • Chant
  • Rap
  • Moan
  • Groan
  • Grunt
  • Growl
  • Howl
  • Meow
  • Scream
  • Squeal
  • Hum

How can parents of autistic children manage vocal stimming?

While stimming is a vital part of healthy, happy autistic behavior, everyone has different sensory needs.  Even among the best of neurodivergent friends, our stims can frequently conflict with each others’ needs.

The first step to reducing stimming should always be to identify and address the cause. Removing or avoiding stressors could relieve the need to stim completely. 

Cause:Solutions:
Cover unpleasant soundHearing protection, leave
Vibrations are soothingHumming or listening to music instead
Feels unheardIdentify and validate emotions

However, not all stimming is stress-induced. If your child is disruptively vocal stimming due to excitement (for example), you will need to communicate with them to find an alternative.

Modifying Vocal Stimming

Volume: Talk to your child about why they need to quiet their stimming. You will need to patiently remind them of when, where, and why you are asking them to be quiet. Many autistic people simply struggle to regulate their own volume.

Frequency/Duration: Try implementing limits. For example, “We can sing this song three times, and then it is time to stop and do something else.” Having clear boundaries and expectations could be comforting.

On the other hand, it could actually cause more stress if your child is simply not able to meet this expectation. Be sure to include their input about what limits are reasonable, and listen to what they feel capable of.

Time/Place: Be clear about when and where there are expectations around vocalizing. Try using visual cues and reminders to help them learn these boundaries.

For this to work, your autistic child must have plenty of other opportunities to vocalize freely.

Did you know? Neurodivergent people must make conscious efforts to suppress or reduce their stims- every time.

It is easier to teach a new behavior than to stop one, so it is highly effective to find a replacement behavior for verbal stimming. Giving your child something else engaging to focus on could be enough to distract them from the stim, or whatever is causing the stim.

Replacement behaviors for vocal stimming

Because it is important to never completely suppress the need to stim, one of the tactics we can use for a harmonious household is to find and agree on replacement behaviors for vocal stimming.

  • Ask your child about what feelings the vocal stimming creates or relieves for them.
  • Brainstorm other ways for them to meet those sensory needs without triggering your nervous system.
  • Communicate and work together to find compromises

For example, humming could be a substitute for singing.

Often vocal stimming is about oral sensations, so suggest an oral stim like

  • chewable jewelry
  • gum or a lollipop
  • blowing bubbles

You can also explore different ways to move your face and mouth with your child, and agree on some quieter ones that they enjoy.

You could offer a  tactile stim toy to focus on instead, such as:

  • fidget spinner
  • stuffed animal
  • silly putty

Maybe even compression clothing would provide a grounding sensation that reduces the need for outward stimming.

You may try many things before striking on what works for your unique tiny human. We offer even more ideas and guidance in our online course, Empowering Autism. Check it out for a fast track to sensory success!

The most important part of any approach to managing stimming behaviors is to offer alternative outlets. If a child is expected to sit still, they MUST have time to run off their energy. Likewise, in order to stim quietly at specified times and places, an autistic child MUST have other opportunities to be loud.

Summary

Autistic people stim for self-regulation through a sensory or mobile outlet. Repeating the action provides a constant and predictable sensory input. While stimming is very important to autistic people, you can find examples of how we all use stimming behaviors every day.

Stimming involves any of the senses, like vision or movement. When we stim with our voice, it is called vocal stimming. This can take the form of talking or singing, as well as non-verbal vocalizations like humming or howling. 

Parents can manage vocal stimming, and other disruptive stimming behaviors, by communicating with their child about what needs those stims fulfill. By meeting the unique needs of your autistic child, you can help them meet your needs. 

Specific techniques include:

  • addressing volume regulation
  • understanding time and place
  • offering quieter alternative stims 

The success of these strategies depends heavily on balancing with appropriate outlets for loud vocal stimming. You will also need to be patient and remind your child what to do and why.

You should never attempt to force an autistic person to stop stimming completely. To understand why, you can learn more about what stimming feels like for us.

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