Substitutions for Sensory Seeking Screams

  • Situation

    My son is non-verbal.  Recently he has begun screaming.  This is not out of anger, but to hear his own voice.  It is quite loud and can be very distracting at home to his siblings and out in public.  I don’t want to discourage his trying to communicate, so am not sure how to handle it.

  • Summary

    Are these behaviors self-reinforcing, attention seeking, or communicative? This is a question that needs to be answered to determine the best intervention. Figure out why your child is screaming by using an ABC chart. Over the course of a few days, record what happened before the screaming started, the screams themselves (how did your child look/behave while screaming) and then what happened after your child finished screaming.

    “A” is for antecedent or what happened right before the behavior.

    “B” is for the behavior. In this case, describe the behavior by asking these questions: Were the screams continuous or short? What were the child’s facial expressions (smile, or distressed look)?

    “C” is for consequence or what happened after the scream.

    Completing an ABC chart will help determine if your child is just enjoying the sound, attempting to receive attention, or trying to communicate. There may be multiple and overlapping reasons for the screaming but this response assumes the most prevalent reason is that the child is seeking sensory input – he may enjoy the sound he is making. Provide substitutions for sounds including V-tech toys, apps and other sound activated and responsive toys. Over time, use of such items may become more reinforcing than screaming and consequently more appropriate.

    Screams may provide sensory input for your child, they may be attention seeking, or they might be your child’s way of trying to communicate a need.
    If the screams are sensory seeking, begin to identify substitutions that provide that sensory feedback for your child such as V-tech toys, sound-activated response toys, apps on your tablet, or even noise makers.

    Demonstrate to your child how to use the toys or apps and only provide your child with these items or toys when he/she is NOT screaming. Do not give these items to your child immediately after a scream – that could reinforce the screaming behavior instead of teaching how to use the toys for sensory input.

  • Definition

    ‘Substitutions for Sensory Seeking Screams’ involves providing an appropriate and more reinforcing activity or item for the child.  Such items provide auditory responses to a child’s initiations.  These items or activities may encourage children to speak and/or make appropriate sounds to get the item to interact.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Difficult
  • Pre-requisites

    Use of ABC Chart to determine purpose of the behavior

  • Process

    1. Document for a minimum of one day by charting ABC information on the attached chart.

    2. Use your results to help you determine if the behavior is self-reinforcing, attention seeking, or for communicative intent.

    3. If you have determined that it is most likely self-reinforcing, or that your child is seeking auditory input, then continue with the next steps.

    4. Begin to collect items that provide a response to a child’s initiations.  These are sometimes called ‘stimulus/response’ items.  They may include V-tech toys, apps, even ‘toobaloos’ (the child makes sounds into a tube that is held up to his ear); and other sound activated response toys.  Links for some of these items are included below.  Other items to explore include: simple household items or toys (such as a balloon that you slowly let out the air making a squeal sound or a pan with a wooden spoon), instruments (such as xylophones, bells, drums), or PVC pipes (as a ‘toobaloo’ substitution).

    5. As you play with your child demonstrate each item, then either allow him to explore or prompt him to ‘communicate’ by pointing or touching and you provide the response.  Stop, then wait again.  As you continue you can make a sound that he can imitate to communicate continuance of the activity.

    6. BE CAREFUL – provide the activities or items at times your child is NOT screaming.  If you provide the response immediately after the scream you may inadvertently reinforce screaming.    Then the behavior may become an inappropriate way to communicate or to gain attention.

    7. As always – seek the opinion of a professional you may be working with such as a behavior, speech, or occupational therapist.

  • Documents and Related Resources

    ABC Sample for Screaming (Word document)


    ABC sample for screaming (PDF)


    Toobaloo (retail site to purchase Toobaloo)


    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.