Children on the spectrum who scream instead of “using their words” are often perceived as manipulative, on sensory overload, or incapable of better behavior until they learn more language. Try using Dr. Karp’s Fast Food Rule and watch your screaming toddler miraculously find his words. In minutes… or less.
This isn’t a guarantee, but it really can work that fast if your child has learned that when frustrated, his best approach is to scream until he gets what he wants. The “scream-’til-I-triumph” phenomenon happens to typically-developing toddlers too. Anyone learning language, frustration tolerance, social skills, and emotional state control at a the same time is bound to go there. Special needs toddlers and preschoolers just stay in that situation longer than a typically-developing child, and they can scream louder and longer and in more situations. It can become their go-to strategy. They have a harder time understanding your non-verbal cues that indicate your attention and appreciation for their distress. Reading social cues is often nearly impossible for them when calm. It is almost impossible for them when upset. Children on the spectrum or with multiple developmental delays can benefit from using the Fast Food Rule during stressful times for years and years after toddlerhood has officially ended.
My March 2015 post “Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing” reviews Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous Fast Food Rule from his Happiest Toddler on the Block book/DVD. Take a look at that post Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing for an example of how to navigate the screams, how to deal with your emotions about being screamed at by your child, and what it looks like to implement it in real life. Dr. Karp did not develop his approach for children with ASD, but it sure works extremely well for all that screaming.
Adaptations that you might have to make to use it effectively with developmentally-different kids: use it very consistently, repeat the experience frequently until your response is familiar to them, and remember that sometimes the screams are real distress based on sensory, language or habitual behaviors that they use to self-calm. Respect their comfort level with direct gaze, sound and touch as you interact while using this approach. That means that you may have to avoid as much eye contact and perhaps not touch them while using the Fast Food Rule. You may also have to dial your communication down to a level that is much, much lower than their chronological age or even lower than their usual receptive language level (what they can understand, not how they speak) when they are this upset. Kids with ASD sometimes live on the edge all the time. They need fewer words and more gestures/facial expressions to follow what is going on when times are good. When angry or frustrated, they need even more non-verbal communication and more targeted short verbal communication so that they can follow what you say.
Children with ASD can definitely benefit from The Fast Food Rule and all of Dr. Karp’s other great Happiest Toddler tools for communication and self-control. Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! A diagnosis of ASD usually includes some type of sensory processing difficulty and frequently issues with rigidity/routines. Kids who scream can be experiencing sensory aversion/sensitivity, become overwhelmed by multi sensory input, and will need your help to parse out all the reasons that they are upset. Carefully watching your child’s build-up to a scream will tell you if you also need to make changes to the sensory environment or give him assistance with transitions in addition to changing your communication style.