Replacement Behaviors for Vocal and Motor Self-Stimulation

  • Situation

    What are some strategies to reduce or extinguish vocal and motor self-stimulatory behaviors that interfere with learning and community inclusion?


  • Summary

    Individuals engage in self-stimulatory behavior for a variety of reasons. In persons with autism, self-stimulatory behavior may provide internal pleasure, help them cope with stressors in the environment, enhance their focus or help them express their emotions.

    Generally, interventions to reduce or eliminate stereotypical behaviors should be used only if they interfere with learning, community inclusion, or pose a danger to the child or those around them.

    Since they are most often used as a calming or sensory strategy for individuals, decreasing them may sometimes cause distress or disregulation. Rather than trying to eliminate the behavior completely, consider if there are ways to decrease the behaviors during specific settings.

    Self-stimulatory behaviors in students with special needs may be employed to help cope with stressors in the environment, enhance focus on tasks, or to help express emotions. One strategy that has had some success is to use background noises as a way to compete with the vocal stimulation.

    This may be playing music in the background of your class or white noise. You can also give the student headphones with music playing.

    Another option is – with parent and student permission – to record the student’s vocal stimulation. Once recorded, provide the student with headphones and allow the student to listen to their own vocalizations. This has been shown to assist in decreasing some vocal stereotypy.

    If none of these options prove successful, you may consider the Response Interruption and Redirection (RIR) strategy. RIR involves interrupting the vocalizations to ask three questions that the student knows the answer to. For example: “what color is my shirt?” “What is your name?”, or “Who is your teacher?” Sometimes this interruption can deter the student from stereotypy for the moment.

  • Definition

    Vocal and/or motor self-stimulatory behaviors sometimes interfere in learning or community inclusion. Finding a competing replacement behavior or a less obvious behavior which serves the same function(s) will limit interference of such behaviors.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13, 14-17
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Pre-requisites

    Attend to another person for a short time.

    Imitate a behavior.

    Follow simple directions.

  • Process

    • Play classical music in the background or give the student headphones with music playing.
    • Record the student’s vocalizations and have the student listen to them while using headphones.
    • Use Response-Interruption and Redirection (RIR) for a momentary delay in stereotypy. Interrupt the vocalizations by getting the student’s attention, ask three known questions, and then praise the student for responding.
    • Please refer to an Occupational Therapist or related professional to assist with sensory-related needs as further evaluation may be necessary. With the help of an Occupational Therapist, individualized strategies can be developed for your child.
  • Documents and Related Resources

    Repetitive Behaviors: Detection and Intervention (related answer on this site)

    Strategies to Address Repeated Verbal Phrases (related answer on this site)

    Increasing Task Engagement and Decreasing Vocal Stereotypy (article)

    ABC-sample (Word document)

    This resource was authored by Watson Institute Special Education Consultant, Rachel Schwartz, Ph.D.

    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.