Got autism? Got screaming and verbal stimming? You can teach your child peace and quiet.

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Originally posted Dec 15, 2014. Updated Jan 9, 2017

Screaming, loud noises, verbal stimming

These are the sounds we autism parents hear all too frequently in our homes.

They never seem to stop.

They drive us to distraction.

They can destroy the peace and quiet of the family. Sometimes they can destroy the family itself.

When my son was little, he did a lot of screaming and verbal stimming. I discovered that with the positive behavioral method known as TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) I was able to reduce these sounds, increase appropriate vocalizations and get some of that precious peace and quiet.

TAGteach uses positive reinforcement

TAGteach is based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and uses positive reinforcement to build desired behaviors. In addition to the positive reinforcement, TAGteach adds an “event marker” i.e., an acoustical signal to indicate to the child when he/she has performed a desired behavior. The acoustical signal is generally a click sound, called a “tag” made by any type of clicker device, or better yet, a TAGteach tagger.  After the “tag,” you give a reinforcer to the child. Here’s how I used this.

Step 1: Tagger

The first step is to get a tagger, a small box-shaped device that makes a distinct click sound. If a tagger is not available, you can use another object: any toy clicker or similar noise-making device, a ballpoint pen, a flashlight with a clicker sound, or even a spoon to tap.

Step 2: Treats

The second step is to get a handful of treats that your child enjoys and will find reinforcing. The treats can by anything: candy, money, tokens for special privileges, but they must be something the child really likes.

Step 3: Observe and Wait for Quiet Mouth or Appropriate Vocalization

The third step: sit back and watch your child. Reinforce Quiet Mouth (i.e., lips together, no sound). Whenever there is a split second of Quiet Mouth, immediately tag (made a click-sound with the device) and hand over a treat. Every time the child’s mouth is Quiet, tag (click) and treat. Soon there will be much more Quiet Mouth behavior.

When doing this it is important not to react to vocal stims or screaming. Don’t look at the child, don’t speak to him/her or explain. Stay quiet yourself and immediately tag and treat as soon as there is even a split second of Quiet Mouth.

Please note, the purpose of this is not to mute the child. The purpose is to teach the skill of being quiet in appropriate settings and to increase the range of sounds or words that the child can say. For this reason, be sure to tag and treat a child for any Appropriate Vocalizations/Communication. If he/she says a nice word, makes a comment, or emits any sound that could be the basis of a word, then tag and reinforce that. The ultimate goal is to increase social and communication skills.

For all of us, there is a time to speak and a time to be still.

Here’s a video that shows TAGteach in action to calm a child (Tink) who is overwrought because she’s hungry and now too agitated to eat. The parent watches for a brief moment of quiet mouth, tags and places a treat in a bowl. At first she’s too upset to eat them, but she knows they’re there. Tink soon realizes that she can control the tag and she starts to calm down, begins to eat the treats and eventually (not shown) eats her dinner. You can see her quickly becoming more calm and looking at her parent during the 40 seconds of this video. The parents are very calm during this process, since they have something to focus on and this also helps the child to calm herself.

Tink has developed in leaps and bounds because her parents use TAGteach and understand the science of behavior. Tink’s parents were told not to expect her to walk or talk and she’s starting to do both. Click here to follow Tink’s journey with TAGteach.

The Calming Tag Points

A tag point is the behavior that will result in a tag and reinforcement.

The calming tag points are five tag points that I come back to time and again because they are so useful. The calming tag points are:

  • Quiet Mouth – The child is silent
  • Appropriate Vocalization or Communication (words, signs, gestures, picture symbols, device) – The child communicates in his/her own way
  • Hands Down – Hands placed at side or in front of body (not flailing about)
  • Feet On Floor – Both feet touch the floor or ground
  • Exhales – Child breathes out; you can see shoulders/chest go down upon exhalation.

All of these are simple behaviors that a child performs often, so there are lots of opportunities to tag and reinforce. Reinforcing these tag points brings about increased calm and communicative behaviors in children with autism. Plus, the more reinforcement and success our children experience, the happier they are.

Use Reactively — For Tantrums and Agitation

In the early years I used these tag points to calm my son down during tantrums. They were highly effective in calming him down and helping him regain his composure. Best of all, after using TAGteach a few times in this way, his tantrums diminished dramatically.

Use Pro-actively — For Calm and Individual Development

After my child learned to be calm, I found myself coming back to these tag points again and again. Why? I discovered that they were a great way to maintain his calm behavior and promote happiness and competence.

Once or twice a day, I sit down with my son for 5-10 minutes and tag and reinforce the calming tag points. He enjoys these quiet sessions very much, and the result is a trusting relationship: he feels calm, happy, and supported (and so do I).

If we are traveling or doing something unexpected, I tag and reinforce the calming tag points too. The reinforcement and familiarity keep him calm and collected; as a result, he handles challenging and unexpected situations very well and often displays new and amazingly competent behaviors. I think of this as “pro-active” tagging.

The Calming Tag Points – Always Available and Always Useful

For these reasons, I recommend that parents and professionals dealing with children with autism consider using the calming tag points as part of their behavior management repertoire. They work, they are easy to observe, and the child enjoys the success and reinforcement.

Tag sound is better than verbal “good job!”

TAGteach is a wonderful tool for working with children with autism for many reasons. It is a validated scientific method based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. It is effective. For the parents, it is easy and low-cost (tagger devices cost about $1.50, and the treats are things you would already have around the house).

For the child, it has numerous advantages: the tag (click) clearly marks for the child the behavior that will earn reinforcement. The tag tells the child, “YES, you did something good. Now you are getting a treat.” The tag gets around the problem of using words with a child with autism: many times our kids can’t understand words, and even if they understand, they can’t comply with the request.

Also, our words and voices carry emotional undertones which can be overwhelming for a child with autism. The tag gets around those problems and allows you to mark and reinforce constructive behaviors at the exact moment the child performs them. Also, words take too long. You can tag and reinforce behaviors faster and more frequently with a tagger than you can with words, so you can build a desired behavior faster and with less effort.

To summarize, the advantages of using a tag sound instead of voice (to say, “good job”, for example) are as follows:

  1. It is clear and has only one meaning — Yes, that was right!
  2. It is consistent — makes the exact same sound every time.
  3. It can be delivered with a high degree of precision — just takes a little practice!
  4. It requires no processing by the language-processing part of the brain.
  5. It conveys no emotional nuances.

You are an expert observer of your child

Every autism parent I’ve ever met is an incredibly observant, detailed observer of their child’s behaviors. Every autism parent I’ve ever met has told me of those beautiful fleeting moments when their child did something really great. Armed with a tagger, the split second you see one of those wonderful moments, you can tag and treat, and thus reinforce that micro-second of great Eye Contact, Interaction, Vocalization or Quiet Mouth. When you reinforce a behavior, it will happen again.

Will you be treating your child like a dog if you use TAGteach?

Many commenters on this post have suggested that it’s not appropriate to use TAGteach since you will be treating your child “like a dog.” TAGteach is based on the same science as the popular and effective clicker training method used with dogs and many other species. Because it’s based on sound science that has been perfected through testing with animals (just like drugs are), TAGteach works with everyone. Maybe you’d prefer to teach your child like an elite athlete or an orthopedic surgeon? TAGteach is used successfully with both these groups and with many more. TAGteach began outside the work of autism, with sports, and has spread to many disciplines. So, no, you will not be treating your child like a dog, you will be treating your child with respect, kindness and a with a view to building skills that will help them to self-calm and develop functional skills — skills that will make life better for everyone in the family. Click here to read a more detailed explanation of why you will not be treating your child like a dog.

Beware the extinction burst — wait it out!

IMPORTANT FINAL NOTE: Please remember, whenever you start using positive reinforcement to increase a behavior, you are changing the child’s environment, and he/she may have a reaction to that change. Frequently the reaction is an increase in the undesired behavior (in this case, vocal stims and disruptive noises). This well-documented phenomenon is called an “extinction burst,” and the only way to handle it is just to wait it out.

So, if you see an uptick in the unwanted behavior, don’t panic. Just wait it out. The undesired behavior will decrease fairly rapidly as the extinction burst winds down, and then the desired behavior will increase.  With time and practice, your child will be able to sit quietly in the car, dining room and classroom and vocalize appropriately in a variety of settings.

More Information

For more information, please see these links:

Free Video Series

Be sure to watch my free video series for autism parents and professionals that explains exactly how to use TAGteach to teach functional skills to children with autism. This is essential information.

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What is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely and quickly. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

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For more information visit the TAGteach website

For research on TAGteach, please see the TAGteach Reference List

Join the free TAGteach For Learning and Behavior Facebook group here

TAGteach taggers are available here.

See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism or feel free to ask me a question (with no obligation).

Sign up for my mailing list to receive updates, new articles and free tips right in your inbox!

Article adapted from Chapter Two of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism, Copyright 2013 by Martha Gabler

Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.

8 thoughts on “Got autism? Got screaming and verbal stimming? You can teach your child peace and quiet.

  1. Great information..my son became autistic from a stroke at age 3. Though he is very social his autistic side dominates him…from screaming and loud whining to needing every door closed. Thank you

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for checking out the article. I’m glad you found it useful for your son. I was astounded to read that your son had a stroke at age 3. What a shock for you and your family. I hope he is making progress. It’s great that he is very social. The issues you mention, screaming, loud whining, wanting to close doors, are all behaviors that can be addressed via the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Do you have access to ABA services to help him gain functional skills?

      Best wishes,

      Martha Gabler

      P.S. Please visit the home page of the blog at http://www.autismchaostocalm.com for additional free resources such as the free ebook on Behavior Basics and the free video course. These items will help you and your family learn more about the science of behavior and how to use TAGteach to increase productive behaviors in your son.

      1. My daughter wasn’t diagnosed until she was almost 5 with Autism Spectrum Disorder and a Sensory disorder. She was labeled Developmentally Delayed because she was born 6.5 weeks early, while I was on vacation in another country. People say that DD or autism is caused by mother smoking or doing drugs and I don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, nor do I drink alcohol.

        1. Hello Alexis,

          Thanks for sharing your daughter’s story. I’m sorry that you have encountered people who believe that developmental disabilities or autism is caused by the mother doing drugs or smoking. At this point in time, there is no known cause for autism. There is a lot of speculation, but as yet there are no hard facts. You are right to rebut these sad and mis-informed notions.

  2. How many tag points should you work on at once? I’m a 1to1 for a boy with Autism. He frequently displays shrieking vocalisations and cant sit for more than a few minutes at a time. We’d like to increase sitting and decrease screeching, can we work on both at the same time or is it better to extinguish one at a time?

    1. Dear Jenny,

      Thank you for your question. I’m sorry for the stress this situation is causing you and the others in the classroom. It is unfortunate, but sadly very common, that children with autism still do not receive appropriate behavioral supports in the schools; this imposes huge burdens on teachers and aides, such as yourself, who are trying to do everything they can.

      Below are two recommendations and a response to your question.

      First recommendation.

      If possible, please find out whether your school system has access to a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). A BCBA is a professional who is trained in analyzing behavior and determining the function of the behavior; this person would develop and help you implement a behavior plan to address this child’s needs.

      Second recommendation.

      You and other staff in the school could consider using TAGteach to tag and reinforce this boy for productive behaviors such as Quiet Mouth and Appropriate Vocalization/Communication. Naturally, I have no idea of the protocols and policies that apply in your school system; you would have to check that out. Screaming is a common problem among children on the spectrum, and TAGteach is an effective way to increase productive alternative behaviors, as described in the article you read: http://autismchaostocalm.com/how-i-reduced-screaming-and-verbal-stimming-in-my-child-with-autism/

      Many young children with autism are placed in settings where the level of demand is too high for their abilities and the level of positive reinforcement is too low (or non-existent). This is a specific situation known as “ratio strain,” and such children may display maladaptive behaviors because they cannot cope. The solution is to do a careful and detailed assessment of their current skill sets and endurance levels, and fashion a program that meets their needs. Please see this article: http://autismchaostocalm.com/what-is-your-childs-balance-of-failure-and-success/

      Response to your question

      In response to your question, we generally recommend, when starting with TAGteach, that it is best to work on only one or two tag points at a time. Also, we recommend starting with a tag point that is not related to the immediate problem you are struggling with. When you start with a problem area it is a high stress experience for the instructor and the student, both of whom are new to TAGteach.

      It is better to start off by teaching that the “tag” means that a reinforcer is coming by playing a simple game: you could ask the child to stack blocks, pick up crayons, or roll a ball, or anything else that is easy and simple for him to do. Each time the student stacks, picks up, or rolls, tag and reinforce that action. Once the tag has been established as a reinforcer, you can then move to other things.

      It is also helpful if new potential TAGteach users spend a little time learning about TAGteach. We offer a free TAGteach Fundamentals Mini-Course, which you and all the other staff are more than welcome to take. It is free and you can access it at this link: http://tagteachblog.com/landing-pages/fundamentals_course/

      We also offer a free ebook on Behavior Basics, featuring one fact about behavior per page, at this link: http://autismchaostocalm.com/behavior-basics/

      These resources will help you learn about TAGteach and the science behind it so you can apply it effectively with your learner.

      Jenny, please let me know if you have other questions, and please let me know how it goes. I wish you and your colleagues all the best in helping this fine little fellow.

      Sincerely,
      Martha Gabler

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