Talk Tools vs. Screaming Tools to Communicate

  • 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 communicative, attention seeking, or self-reinforcing – This is a question that needs to be answered to determine the best intervention. For a minimum of one day, keep track of the behavior (screaming) on an ABC chart.  ABC tracking helps determine the reason for a behavior.   “A” stands for Antecedent, or what happened before the behavior. “B” stands for the behavior. In this case, describe the behavior by asking these questions: Were the screams continuous or short? Was he looking at someone? Was he reaching for something? “C” stands for Consequence, or what happened right after the scream. Did someone react or attend to the child? Did he receive something (attention, item, etc.)? Completing an ABC chart will help determine if your child is attempting to communicate, seeking attention, or just enjoying the sound. There may be multiple and overlapping reasons for the screaming but this response assumes the most prevalent reason is that the child is attempting to communicate a need or desired object/person. Timing your responses and other family members’ responses to the screaming is crucial. Teaching your child appropriate ways to communicate his needs and wants in addition to your learning to respond in ways that reinforce appropriate communication rather than reinforce screaming will decrease the screaming and increase peace in the house and in public.

  • Definition

    ‘Talk Tools vs. Screaming Tools” involves carefully timed response to behaviors. You and other family members respond to, or attend to, your child when he uses some other form of communication for attention, such as pulling your hand, using gestures/signing, or using a communication device. He will learn over time that he can gain attention by using other means vs. screaming.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • 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 for communicative intent, attention seeking, or self-reinforcing.

    3. If you have determined that it is most likely to communicate a want or need, continue with the next steps.

    4. If your child is currently using some type of communication device or form of communication as signing; wait a few seconds after the scream then prompt use of the device or communication tool. For example if he is standing near the cookies, model ‘cookie’ on the device or sign.  You may need to physically prompt. Then immediately with an exaggerated response state: “You want cookie!” and provide the item.

    5. Begin to fade your assistance or prompting until your child is independent with his use of communication for a specific item.

    6. Once you feel confident your child knows ‘how’ to communicate for a specific item do NOT respond to the screaming UNTIL he uses the appropriate means of communication.

    7. BE CAREFUL – If you simply give the child the item without teaching the appropriate form of communication you will ‘shape’ him into screaming for items he wants.

    8. BE CAREFUL – Do not use additional verbiage. Only use the few words needed to teach and respond.

    9. 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 (PDF)



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