AAC and Autism

Stim-Friendly Spaces: Embracing Stimming and AAC in the Classroom

Laura Hayes
June 11, 2024

Stim-Friendly Spaces: Embracing Stimming and AAC in the Classroom

Laura Hayes
June 11, 2024

For too long, stimming has been misunderstood and discouraged in academic settings. It can even be a primary reason for device abandonment or restrictive access to a communication device.  But the truth is, we can reframe these "stimming" behaviors as actions that allow many students to learn and thrive. We just need to find supportive strategies to help us and them thrive!

Many AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) users exhibit behaviors known as "stimming" or self-regulatory behaviors. Stimming refers to repetitive movements or vocalizations that can help an AAC user regulate their emotions, focus their attention, or self-soothe when feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Common examples of stimming in AAC users include hand flapping, rocking, repeating words or sounds (known as vocal stimming or echolalia), and even requesting or activating the same buttons on their AAC device repeatedly. While stimming may seem unusual to some, it is a very normal and acceptable way for AAC users to meet their sensory needs and cope with the demands of their environment. Here are some ways we can redefine "stimming" with AAC to be supportive communication partners:

Babbling as a Learning Tool

When a student explores and appears to randomly activate symbols throughout the AAC device, we can look at this as babbling.  We all explored sounds and language as we learned to talk.  AAC users need this experience too.   Give acknowledgement and feedback while continuing to model your own words and language to set the stage for greater engagement with lessons and positive classroom participation.

Specialized Interests and Vocabulary

You may notice certain students developing what might seem like perseveration on preferred vocabulary of repeated phrases and words. I once had an AAC user who LOVED to say "chicken nuggets" under his lunch page–all day, everyday.  I had another whose favorite was "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".  And another who couldn't get enough of the animal groups and animal sounds.   These linguistic sparks shouldn't be extinguished even if they might seem off-topic or irritating to a communication partner who has heard them for the one-thousandth time! Instead, try stretching that preferred interest and vocabulary throughout language opportunities and a variety of activities in the day.  Count stars, read or even make a story to read about chicken nuggets, or add animals to an augmented realty app to comment on.  Finding creative ways to imbed these interests and leaning into ways to model them into the curriculum can be just the spark the user might need to show you they know something new!

Echolalia and Scripts–it's not Meaningless

While echolalia may seem nonsensical to some, it serves important communicative functions for AAC users who use it. These individuals are likely gestalt language processors who use echolalia and scripts to process and express language.  Other reasons for immediate echolalia include: helping with regulation, take turns in conversation, and processing language, and repairing communication (Prizant and Duchan, 1981).    Far from being meaningless, echoing words and phrases is one way AAC users can process language, regulate their emotions and environments, and even share thoughts or make requests indirectly. Rather than try to extinguish scripts or echolalia, communication partners should acknowledge (even if we don't understand exactly what is said or meant), try to look for the deeper meaning behind the script, and offer additional language models using robust AAC to help move towards spontaneous, flexible grammar.

Auditory self-stimulation

From gentle humming to contented clicks and whistles, auditory stimming behaviors are multi-sensory tools for self-regulation. Rather than disruptions, these stims can be just what a student needs to stay focused and grounded amid the hustle of a busy classroom. They're bursts of reassuring rhythm in a dynamic environment that is often chaotic.  Rather than removing an AAC device, because it is disruptive, consider the "why" the AAC user might be dysregulated.  Offer a rich sensory diet to help with regulation.  Consider supporting "whisper mode" to teach someone how to lower the volume so they can meet their regulatory needs while decreasing classroom disruption.  Model self-advocacy phrases so supports are in place to help them understand their regulation needs and when they need auditory stimulation.

It's time to rethink the role of stimming in educational spaces. With compassion, support, and reasonable accommodations, these self-regulatory behaviors can empower students to show up more fully and engage meaningfully with the curriculum. An enthusiastically stim-positive classroom is one that celebrates students' unique wiring and creates a nourishing atmosphere for all kinds of minds to learn and grow.

So teachers, keep an open mind - and ear! Those quirky vocal stims you're hearing may just be the soundtrack to a blossoming mind finding its groove. Now that's something to celebrate.

Laura Hayes is a speech-language pathologist with over 15 years of augmentative communication experience in both school and medical settings.

Laura has presented locally and at state, national, and international conferences such as MSHA, HSHA. PATTAN, AAC in the Cloud, ATIA, and the Pediatric Perspectives Conference. She has been published and supported both inpatient pediatric and educational augmentative communication research.  She authored a course on gestalt language processing and AAC for https://www.meaningfulspeech.com/.  She loves providing training, implementation resources, and guided direction to help with success using AAC.  She can be followed for more resources and ideas on Instagram @aac_innovations.

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