10 Tips To Squelch The Screaming in Students With Autism

Screaming is a behavior that can quickly make one go batty. High-pitched squeals, loud boisterous noises or abrupt vocalizations can be disruptive. Students with autism that scream, squeal or yell can take a quiet classroom and turn it into chaos in a matter of seconds. Naturally, your anxiety and blood pressure rise, your stress hormones and adrenaline spike and you feel as though you have just been through a tornado.

But, don't fret!

Returning, (and staying) at a quiet baseline is possible. Give these 10 tips a shot, and return quiet order to your classroom.

1.       Determine the Nature of the Screaming

-Try and decide what the nature of the screaming is. Is it a verbal stim? Is it because the student enjoys the auditory feedback? Is he or she frustrated, hurt or angry? Knowing what kind of screaming you are looking at will help inform the decisions you make for squelching it.

2.       Set a positive tone.

-Stay calm and understanding. Do not get overwhelmed nor upset as this may escalate the situation. Remain neutral and state only the facts. Never use sarcasm nor inferential language. Create an overall environment of nurture. Be warm and inviting.

3.       Recognize Frustrations

-Recognize and acknowledge frustrations. If you sense a student is getting frustrated, adjust the environment accordingly. Try to notice the slight changes that takes place before a student gets truly frustrated.

4.       Identify Triggers

-If possible, try and discover the antecedents to the screaming episodes. Take as much data as possible during various parts of the day. Common triggers are frustration, perceived embarrassment, increased workload, perceived incompetency or imperfection. When you have a student that screams, it is for a reason. There are reasons for their behaviors. Identifying triggers will help inform your decisions for interventions.

5.       Identify Sensory Needs

-It may be possible that the screaming is due to sensory needs. Perhaps your student is yelling because he or she enjoys the auditory feedback that it provides. If it appears that a student is screaming due to the auditory feedback that it serves, try allowing them to yell or scream in a closed room with great acoustics. If possible, a large room with a good echo could work well.

Maybe it is the oral motor feeling he or she gets from yelling. If this is the case, try giving the student a piece of hard candy to suck on or a piece of taffy to chew on. If you identify that your student yells because he or she wants the oral motor feedback, chewing on a Chewy “T” or “P” may also help. When it comes to sensory needs, a student could also be yelling because he or she is overwhelmed with the noise level, lights, or smells of a classroom. Try to consider these needs and accommodate accordingly.

6.       Help Make a Vent Place

-Make a space for your student that needs to yell. If possible, find a space that is near enough to your classroom, yet removed enough that that the student is not disrupting others. You will want your student to be able to quickly (and safely) get to the vent place with as little disruption as possible. Try to offer the space to students that seem on the verge of a screaming episode. If necessary, you may need to directly teach the vent space to a student.

There are 4 steps for teaching a student how to use a vent space.

These are:

1. Identify when he or she needs to take a vent break. This will ultimately prove to be hard for most students with autism, so you may need to offer the space when you feel an episode coming on.

2. Create and read social stories. Practicing reading social stories of what to do when they feel like screaming can be a great tool for teaching appropriate behavior.  

3. Demonstrating where to go when they student feels like yelling, and

4. Practicing what to do when they get there.  is key. The more you practice, the easier it will be in the long run.

7.       Take a Break (For Yourself!)

-A screaming child can quickly raise your blood pressure. Rising anxiety and an overall feeling of failure can overtake you as you are desperate to try and calm a screaming student. Sometimes, it is just too much. You may need to practice identifying that breaking point in yourself and tag out with a colleague if you can. Take a short 5-minute break to regroup, calm down, and relax. Get yourself back together and get back into it. Locate a fellow staff member that you can rely on to give you a break when you are stressed to the max. No staff member available? Have some distinct coping mechanisms put into place for an instant pick-me-up when necessary.

8.       Distract

-Sometimes, especially in the case of vocal stims, a student may just need to be distracted by something of great interest. I once worked with a student that just needed to hear a hand clap or snap of one’s fingers to break from the trance of a vocal stim. This helped keep the student on track and spend more time on task. Depending on the student, I have distracted students from yelling with ice packs, talking about lawn mowers or making dinosaur noises. Whatever I can do to distract a student from an ear-piercing shriek, I do.

9.       Find a Reinforcer to Work For

-Ask yourself, “what does this student really LOVE to work for?” Find a reinforce that your student is motivated to work for. Are there things that they consistently like or choose from when given the option? Try creating a list of reinforcers or motivators for your student. Make them easy accessible, inexpensive, easily administered, and appropriate for the task completed.

10.   Use Reinforcers Appropriately!

-Now that you have a list of reinforcers that they student is willing to work for, put it to use! Use the desirable reinforcers to teach appropriate and opposite behavior. Give your student the motivator to reinforce when he or she has a quiet mouth or has decided to use the vent space appropriately.  Consistent delivery of reinforcers for appropriate behavior will teach the student that being appropriate inside the classroom will yield much better results for them.

Screaming students is a tough behavior that many of us will struggle with at some point in our career. Although a troubling and difficult behavior, the good news is, it doesn’t have to last forever. Figuring out the function of the screaming will dictate how you tackle handling it. Allow for your student to have a place to scream or vent when they need it. Reinforce the opposite and appropriate behavior, and reinforce often. If overwhelmed, allow yourself to take a break when you need it.

Good luck! Your students are counting on you!