“Stimming” is something people do to regulate their emotions or calm themselves, whether they recognize it or not. There are many ways that someone may stim, including using their voice.
This article explains what vocal or verbal stimming is, why people do it, and how stimming benefits people. You’ll also learn when you should help your child stop one type of stimming and replace it with another.
What is stimming?
Stimming refers to self-stimulatory behaviors. These are typically repetitive movements or vocalizations (sounds) made when a person is bored or nervous.
Many people stim without realizing it. Stims could look like fidgeting, such as twirling your hair or tapping your fingers on the table. Other examples of stimming include:
Flapping your hand
Any repetitive hand movement (cracking your knuckles, clenching up a fist)
Tapping your foot
Rocking or swaying back and forth
Smelling or licking over and over
Lining items up in a row
What is verbal stimming?
Verbal or vocal stimming is when a person makes repetitive sounds. These could be things like:
Repeating words or phrases
Clicking your tongue
Who is more likely to stim?
Anyone can stim. Neurodivergent people, such as autistic people or those with ADHD, are more likely to stim. However, neurotypical people stim as well. Young children may stim, but as they get older some will grow out of these behaviors.
Why do people stim?
People use self-stimulating behaviors for a variety of reasons. One main reason for stimming is to regulate emotions. For example, one study of autistic adults found that self-stimming is helpful for managing anxiety.
People stim when they feel overwhelmed or are responding to a lot of sensory input, like a noisy, crowded room or lights that are too bright. The stimming can help them self-regulate in the moment.
Stimming can also be done for positive reasons, as a way to express excitement or joy. Some people may flap their hands when they’re excited simply because of how happy they are. Perhaps they’re seeing a friend or just received good news. Picture how some people jump up and down when their team scores a touchdown, or sway back and forth while anticipating the kickoff. These are the same types of behaviors.
People also may stim just because they enjoy it. There may not always be a clear reason for stimming, and that’s OK!
How do you treat stimming?
Parents may wonder how to “treat” stimming in their child, or even how to stop stimming. There is a negative stigma around stimming, particularly with more noticeable behaviors like hand flapping and rocking, and vocal stims like shrieking, repeating words, or making other vocal sounds.
Stimming is typically a positive thing for kids who use it, so it isn’t necessarily something to change or stop. In many cases, stimming helps children remain regulated throughout the day.
In one study, researchers talked to autistic adults about why they stim and how it helps them. A participant named Sally said this: “I started kind of incorporating [stimming] more in my life, and it actually managed to help me stave off some panic attacks. For example, I never used to wave my hands that much, but I’ve started doing it more and it actually helps, like if I’m in a crowded elevator or something.”
However, if stimming is harmful or causes an unsafe situation, then the behavior should be addressed. Let’s say a child is spinning around outside and getting closer to a road, or they’re unaware that they’re close to falling off a step. A caregiver should intervene in a positive way. If a child is hitting themselves or doing any other type of behavior that’s harmful, the stim should be stopped and replaced with something safe. If there are certain times of day when a child is likely to do these unsafe behaviors, then a plan should be put in place to safely replace the stims.
“Experts suggest helping the child find a less disruptive stim that still gives them the benefits of the original stim.”
There are also situations when stims might be disruptive, such during class in school. Experts suggest helping the child find a quieter or less disruptive stim that still gives them the benefits of the original stim, such as regulation or self-soothing. For example, let’s say a child is shrieking loudly in class. This stim could be replaced with another vocal stim like humming or singing quietly. A stim of tapping fingers could be replaced with doodling or a quiet fidget toy.
If there are situations when a stim has to be replaced, be sure to check in with your child about how they’re feeling. It’s important to show your child lots of support and acknowledge their need to stim. Remember, in many cases, this behavior is harmless–and hugely helpful to the person who’s engaging in it. An important note: We believe that when speaking about any community as a whole, the best approach is to prioritize that community’s voices, needs, and preferences. Within the larger autism community, the current language preference is identity-first (e.g., autistic child), which is why we use that language in our content. Expressable is committed to listening to and learning from the populations we serve. If and when their preferences change, we’ll adjust our approach accordingly.