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.

    It is important to first assess the function of the behavior and situations/events that may trigger more intense self-stimulatory behavior. Knowing the function(s) will determine your intervention as well as replacement behavior(s).

    Create a plan to observe your student’s behaviors, determine possible triggers and times when these behaviors are likely to occur to begin the process and help identify possible replacement behaviors.

    Completing an A-B-C chart may assist with determining possible triggers for the behaviors, time the behaviors are most likely to occur, and maintaining consequences. (See resource section)

    Self-stimulatory behaviors in students with special needs may be employed to help cope with stressors in their environment, enhance focus on tasks or to help express emotions.

  • 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

    1. Try to determine the possible function of vocal stereotypy and hand stimming by conducting observations; you may want to seek out professional help from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Behavior Specialist or  a Special Education Teacher. Having a better idea of when the behavior is most likely to occur can assist with implementation of strategies. Please see helpful links below.
    2. Some general strategies based upon different functions of the behavior include but are not limited to:


    • Self-Calming: Teach the use of a replacement behavior that is less overt such as squeezing a stress ball, or squeezing hands together instead of flapping hands in front of the face.
    • Sensory Input:  Provide opportunities for your child to receive needed sensory input through exercise or activities provided by an Occupational Therapist.  It is important to understand that what may be calming input for one person could be aversive to another person. Seek professional help.
    • Escaping a Demand:  Assess the demand and determine if it is “too hard” or “too easy” and adapt as needed.  Your child may need the task “chunked” into smaller segments in order to do it successfully.  For example, rather than give a full worksheet of math problems, cut page in half to limit the visual information and allow him to focus more successfully.  Use pictures to support verbal instructions as spoken language is transient. A person with autism benefits from  additional cues  when completing multi-step tasks.
    • Communicating Emotions:  Help identify what your child may be feeling and verbalize to him in short messages for example “I see you are excited !”  Provide attention to meaningful verbal responses. “I like how you used your words!”  Try to interrupt and re-direct the behavior.
    • 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)


    ABC-sample (Word document)

    This resource was authored by Watson Institute Special Education Consultant, Lisa Plastino, M.Ed.

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