How do you calm an autistic child from screaming? (Tips)

In this guide, we will discuss “How do you calm an autistic child from screaming”, finding the reasons, the causes of anxiety and challenging behaviour and a few helpful tips on how to help your child calm down when they engage in challenging behaviour.

How do you calm an autistic child from screaming?

The question ‘How do you calm an autistic child from screaming?’ is a very common one. Many children who have been diagnosed with autism have meltdowns and most of them can happen in public places. This may become a very uncomfortable situation and confusing if you are dealing with this for the first time. During a meltdown, it is important to:

  • Be empathetic and remain calm.
  • Make the child feel safe and loved.
  • Avoid punishments.
  • Break out your sensory toolkit.
  • Once they are calm, teach them coping strategies.

We will continue to talk about each tip or recommendation in-depth. These simple tips will help you manage meltdowns but remember that every child is different so what works with one child may not work with another. However, one of the most important things to do when we encounter challenging behaviour (including screaming) it is very useful if we analyze why the behaviour is occurring. 

Finding the ‘Why’

You could start by observing when the behaviour occurs, why it tends to happen, under which circumstances, what are the consequences of the behaviour, etc. This is what we would call a functional assessment or a functional behavioural assessment and normally it is performed by a 

Board-certified behaviour analyst or BCBA, or a mental health professional that knows about behaviour-analytic knowledge and interventions.

Sometimes it is likely to be a form of self-stimulation, which is ‘automatic reinforcement’, meaning it is a behaviour that stimulates their senses in which case it becomes sort of a ‘habit’ and would need to be replaced with an alternative behaviour (i.e. listening to music). 

However, let’s consider that there may be another function to the same behaviour and that would be to get what they want or try to avoid doing something they don’t want to do. Here screaming becomes their form of communication if they are nonverbal, but an alternative means of communication such as sign language, using a technological device, teaching them through visual aids, gestures, etc. 

Causes of anxiety and challenging behaviours

If your child displays many challenging behaviours, for instance screaming non-stop, can become a very frustrating and overwhelming situation to deal with as a concerned parent. Challenging behaviours or ‘tantrums’ can make it very difficult for children with autism to participate in typical activities or even prevent them from leaving their home.

How do you calm an autistic child from screaming? (Tips)

Certainly, it is not an easy task to calm a child with autism but there are certain techniques on how to help them calm down. However, we need to consider how children with autism react to physical and emotional distress differently than typical children. For instance, they may not be able to say ‘I want a toy’ or ‘I don’t want to do it’, instead, they will throw fits to get what they want to avoid doing something they simply don’t feel like doing.

Subsequently, as a result of feeling stressed, anxious, excited, frustrated, etc., they will display behaviours that we consider challenging and for them have become adaptive. You can predict some of the stressors that generate the sensory assaults that provoke the screaming such as a loud noise or a major change in their routine but some are less obvious.

Recognizing their reactions

If you spend most of the time with the child, you could observe, analyze and predict their behaviour. However, in some cases, it can become very challenging and difficult to predict reactions to emotions that are difficult for them to express so their reactions can take various forms.

For instance, if screaming becomes common at some point when your child hears a loud or unpleasant sound one day, the next time they can incur in self-aggression or covering their ears. But how to help calm a child with autism when they are engaging in challenging behaviours? That will be discussed next.

How to help calm a child with autism

There are certain things that we can do and there are others we will need to avoid. Most of the techniques are based on commonalities among children with autism, for instance:

  • Social conventions and norms are difficult to understand.
  • Using or following spoken language can be challenging or non-existent.
  • Communicating non-verbally can become difficult for some children.
  • Lack of social motivation or wanting to engage in social situations.
  • Sensory challenges when trying to increase positive behaviours.

First of all, you must remain calm and model this kind of behaviour whenever you can. Many of the techniques are based on sensory integration therapy, which is an approach that helps people with sensory dysfunction to manage situations that are challenging to them. Even if they are not failproof, they can make a big difference when you feel like nothing else is working.

Tip 1 Offer options

When we say offer options we mean offering alternatives to get away from an overwhelming situation, for instance, taking them to another room (quieter) or going outside. However, make sure to read the situation carefully because it can become very usual behaviour when they need to avoid or escape from something they are required to do.

Tip 2: get them sensory toys to help lower anxiety

There are many options online, from squeezy balls, soft clay, toys with bright colours or simply toys with textures. You’ll be amazed at all the options out there.

Very often, your child will show signs of distress before they go into a full tantrum or a meltdown. Identify, by reading the situation/context, if your child is angry, anxious, or just having a sensory overload. These types of toys are said to be helpful to help children with sensory overloads to lower their anxiety.

How do you calm an autistic child from screaming? (Tips)

Tip 3: getting them a weighted vest or blanket

As indicated by Lisa Jo Rudy from Verywellhealth, “For some children, these heavy items can provide a feeling of security, making it easier to manage the sensory assaults that go along with most school and community experiences.”

If you don’t have weighted items, you can keep a regular blanket and roll your child like a ‘burrito’. The pressure can be very calming for some children with autism.

Tip 4: Guided meditation

Not all children with autism will react positively to these types of techniques but many may get a lot out of mindfulness techniques for emotional regulation. If you notice your child’s behaviour gets worse instead of better then look for environmental cues about what is causing your child’s distress such as turning the light off or turning the music down. 

Tip 5: Physical exercise

Physical exercise is very important. While many children with autism spend their time at home or therapy, it is still important to dedicate some time to some physical activity or sport.

Tip 6: Teaching methods to stay calm

Depending on your child’s abilities, you could teach them to walk away, do deep breathing exercises, meditate or lookout for alternative ways such as tunning in a calming video, book or calming music.

Why is this blog about How do you calm an autistic child from screaming important?

Just as we have discussed on ‘How to calm an autistic child from screaming’, some parents may get frustrated or overwhelmed when their child engages in challenging behaviour. As we have seen, one of the major reasons is the sensory overload which can spike their anxiety, incurring in behaviours such as screaming since they may not be able to communicate their frustration. 

Moreover, their behaviour in some cases has a reason or a why and understanding why can help you manage it differently. Sometimes, screaming can serve as a way to avoid something or a way to get what they want. However, it could be that they are listening to an unpleasant sound/noise or being in a place with a very bright light. The techniques we have presented can make a difference but remember, if nothing seems to work and it gets too overwhelming, try to get professional advice from a mental health professional. 

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about How do you calm an autistic child from screaming

How do you punish an autistic child for screaming?

If you would like to punish an autistic child for screaming, here are some useful strategies:

  • Be consistent.
  • Inform yourself thoroughly about your child’s condition.
  • Define realistic expectations.
  • Use rewards/reinforces and consequences.
  • Use clear and simple messages to communicate with the child.
  • Offer praise when they have done something good.
  • Establish a routine.

What causes meltdowns in autism?

There are many potential reasons to explain why a meltdown in autism happens, such as a change in their usual routine, bright light or loud sound. An autistic person’s brain is wired differently so many times their brain goes into hyperdrive when they are having a meltdown since they can have sensory overloads.

Is screaming an early sign of autism?

Screaming is not universally defined as an early sign of autism. However, some researchers have found that as early as the first months of age of babies who are later diagnosed with autism produce a different pattern of cry than those with other developmental disabilities and those from typically developing infants.

How do I get my autistic child to stop pinching?

If your autistic child recurrently starts pinching, it may be because this behaviour has been reinforced through ‘attention’ or getting something they want/to need. The idea is to minimize the reward by approaching the child without making any eye contact. Don’t reprimand or say anything other than stating the rule “use your hands, no pinching”. Then take your child somewhere they can take a break from others.

Is hitting a sign of autism?

Hitting is not a universal sign of autism but people with autism tend to engage in behaviour that can cause harm to themselves or others when they feel frustrated, overwhelmed or unwell. Some of the behaviours that you may see are banging their head on walls or other objects, hitting themselves or others and hitting their head with their hands. Since some of them lack communication and social skills, this seems to be an ‘adaptive’ behaviour that gets them the attention they desperately seek.

References 

Rudy, L.J. (2020, Apr.) How to Calm a Child With Autism. Retrieved from verywellhealth.com.

How do you calm an autistic child from screaming? (Tips)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.