Your autistic child is screaming, and all hope feels lost. Your child may have lost their hope, too. Calming a screaming autistic child is different from calming a screaming non-autistic child, especially if they have a history of aggression. Here are the steps to take to calm a screaming autistic child.
Autistic Tantrums & Meltdowns in Public
If you’re in public, your anxiety may be telling you all about how many people are watching and judging you.
This says nothing about you as a parent and everything about them. You are not a failure for trying your best with what you have.
If you are at home, remain calm and focus on ways you can help your child through this situation.
Steps to Calm an Autistic Child
Here are five steps to calming an autistic child who won’t stop screeching to quell your anxiety and diffuse the situation quickly.
1. Focus on your yelling child.
When your autistic child starts screaming or high-pitched squealing, your first instinct might be to look around at how people are reacting if you are in public. How your autistic child is behaving says nothing about your parenting. How other people react or judge you in this moment says everything about them.
The most valuable thing you can do in this moment is take a minute to quickly assess whether this is a tantrum or a meltdown.
An autistic tantrum usually happens right after an interaction that doesn’t go the child’s way.
An autistic meltdown happens out of nowhere, after signs of overwhelm and excess stimming. Meltdowns can also occur if routine changes too quickly or a promise is revoked.
If the interaction is the routine change, or the screaming autistic child finding out something they were looking forward to is no longer happening, this is a meltdown — every sensory aspect is weighing down on their shoulders like a pile of bricks. It is physical and emotional distress.
2. Be a safe space for your child.
Meltdowns cannot be stopped, but they end quickly once the autistic is allowed space and freedom to let it happen. Your screaming autistic child going through a meltdown has zero emotional control during this time, and all they can do is feel it.
Your job as the parent is to be a safe space for them. Be the number one person they can be themselves with instead of the person they’re afraid to experience this with. This is the side of autism no autistic person wants anyone to see because it is so embarrassing.
3. Create a sensory-free zone.
Whether you’re at home or in public, find or create a space free of as much sensory distraction as you can for you and your child. The most memorable, amazing thing you can do for your autistic child in this moment is reacting as if you two are the only people in the world.
If you’re in the middle of the grocery store, seek out the bathrooms, fitting rooms or a corner of the store.
Tantrums welcome the attention of other people, while strangers staring fuels a meltdown. When the child is autistic, a screaming tantrum can quickly turn into a screaming meltdown.
If you keep sensory items on you that your autistic child likes, offer a few as a distraction to stop the screaming. Never put noise-canceling headphones or a weighted jacket on an autistic child without their permission. This can be the exact opposite sensory input they need and cause your autistic child to scream more.
Only physically redirect your screaming autistic child by holding their hand or picking them up if it poses no harm to you. Clearly and slowly explain every step to them.
- I hear you, and I see you. Your feelings are valid. Let’s go somewhere private.
- I am going to pick you up/hold your hand/place my arm on your shoulder.
- Can I put your noise-canceling headphones on you?
If the autistic child started screaming while holding an object, or there is an object that initiated the screaming, take it with you only to temporarily pacify your autistic child.
If your child refuses to move at all, keep calm and continue to the next step.
4. Calm your raging child.
Telling your autistic child to calm down isn’t going to help, no matter the reason for their screaming behavior.
To calm an autistic child who is screaming, try to distract them with grounding techniques, like asking them questions.
- Hey, what’s that on your shirt? That’s so cool.
- Do you know how to make an elephant face?
- What color are your shoes?
Playing a game of I SPY can also help to distract your autistic child from screaming by forcing them to be aware of their surroundings. Have them name three colors and three objects.
An activity autistic adults may do when they need to keep their eyes closed during meltdowns is to name one color, one scent and one sound — on repeat — until they are calm enough to get themselves to a place where they can continue the meltdown safely, out of the public eye.
5. Deal with the situation appropriately.
Autistic tantrums and autistic meltdowns should be dealt with differently.
Non-autistic temper tantrums are different from non-autistic tantrums, because emotions are harder to understand. Autistic children who experience alexithymia are not going to understand what their feelings are, despite their behavior illustrating it for them.
Instead of saying you know how they feel, teach them an appropriate way to work through their emotions. It may not be socially acceptable to start screaming in a store, but your autistic child’s brain doesn’t understand why that matters.
Tantrums can be avoided by teaching your autistic children how to feel their feelings and work through their emotions instead of pushing them away.
If they had an object they can’t keep, explain this after they calm down. If you’re unable to reason with them, kindly give it to a store associate to take away. This way, they are painted as the villain and you are not.
Autistic meltdowns can last anywhere from one minute to several weeks. When autistic children are allowed to ride out the meltdown, it will diffuse quickly. If the meltdowns continue to return, this is a problem of autism burnout.
You have the power to prevent public meltdowns by teaching your autistic child how to communicate with you that a meltdown is coming on.
Instead of punishing meltdowns, which are a normal part of your child’s autism, create a safe space at home where they can ride their meltdowns out without judgment. Autistic people lose complete control over themselves and their emotions during a meltdown and literally cannot stop it.
A screaming child is one thing, but a screaming autistic child requires additional care and preparation. In order to avoid creating a traumatic experience for you both, remember to remain calm. Ignore bystanders as if you and your screaming autistic child are the only two people in the world. Then work through the steps to diffusing the situation.
Autism Resources for Parents