What do you do when your child with autism is driving you CRAZY? (Tantrum de-escalation)

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You cautism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementan do something RIGHT NOW!

Here are actions you can take right now to deal with screaming, tantrumming, anger, running around the house, or any other chaotic behavior. You are going to start reinforcing (rewarding) your child for any tiny physical movement he makes that is even remotely positive. First I’ll explain what to do, then I’ll explain why this works.

Gather your materials — about 5 minutes

Step 1: Find something in your house that makes a quick, sharp click sound: a ballpoint pen, a flashlight, or if need be, a spoon that you can tap on the wall or a table.

Step 2: Get some treats that your child likes: very small pieces of candy, pretzel pieces, cereal pieces, tic-tacs, or anything similar. Put them into a small container that you can hold in your hand.

Observe, mark and reinforce your child – about 10-60 minutes

Stand back and watch your child. Do not talk or interact, just observe. Look at how he is moving his arms, legs, head, torso and mouth. Focus on the smallest possible muscle movements he is making. Now, see if you can spot a split second of Feet Still or Hand(s) Still. If you see such a split second, immediately click your pen/flashlight or tap the spoon, and quickly hand your child a treat. Continue observing. You may spot a split second of Quiet Mouth (he stops screaming because he has to breathe). If so, immediately click your pen/flashlight or tap the spoon, and follow up with another treat. Your child may be too upset to take the treat; if so, don’t worry about that, just set it down someplace where he can see it. Do not talk to or interact with the child; do not react to any undesired behaviors.

Continue watching; especially, look out for Both Feet On The Floor. If you see a split second of Both Feet On The Floor, click or tap the spoon and hand over another treat. Observe your child’s breathing; if you can determine when he is exhaling, click and give a treat every time he exhales. Continue clicking (or tapping the spoon) and treating the child as much as possible every time you see a hand or foot still, his mouth is quiet, or he is exhaling. Keep this up until the child has calmed down. This may take anywhere from ten minutes to sixty minutes. See detailed article here.

What am I doing?

What you are doing is positively reinforcing your child every time he displays a physical movement that is positive. For a child with autism to have Both Feet On The Floor, Quiet Mouth, Hands Still, and Calm Exhalation is good. A child who is performing these behaviors is generally calm and not running around doing wild things.

A parent who sees a child performing these good behaviors will feel pleased and relieved. What you have done is you have “marked” and “reinforced” your child for performing small physical movements that, when added together, result in a child who is no longer tantrumming, wailing or running around. You have changed, or “shaped,” your child’s behavior. You have reinforced positive behaviors and ignored undesired behaviors.

What is this called?

This is a teaching method called Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach). Below is a brief description of TAGteach and why it works so well with children with autism. For general information see the TAGteach International website.

TAGteach is based on behavioral science and involves the use of positive reinforcement to achieve behavior goals. Specifically, it combines positive reinforcement with an audible event marker signal. The “TAG” part of TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance and refers to the audible marker, a key tool used in the system that is used to highlight success. The TAGteach protocol also includes tools to deliver information, reduce inefficient language, assess performance, create confidence and deliver positive reinforcement.

TAGteach is not a substitute for other behavioral methods used to teach children with autism, such as other forms of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) or Verbal Behavior (VB) therapy, but it can serve as a powerful accompaniment to these methods as well as other methods used in teaching children with autism.

It is not a cure for autism. But it is a teaching method that has been uniquely successful at reaching my severely autistic and profoundly nonverbal child.

How does this work?

TAGteach combines positive reinforcement with an event “marker” signal, often an acoustical signal. Many things can be used to “mark” an event. I use box clickers, flashlights, and even
hand claps if I have nothing else available. People use ballpoint pens (the top makes a click-like sound when pressed down), tally counters, and even the “cricket clickers” available at novelty stores. The marker—the key communication tool used in the system—makes a distinctive “click” sound to mark a behavior at exactly the time it occurs.

The sound becomes a simple acoustical message that is quickly processed. The benefit is that it is binary, with only two values: The mark means YES, YOU DID SOMETHING GOOD, and absence of the mark means “try again.” The mark is the critical information that learners need to acquire new skills.

Why does it work so well for kids with autism?

The “mark” gets around the communications problems common to many children with autism. When I first heard about this, it made instant sense to me. My son was so chaotic and averse to verbal coaching that I could immediately see how the event marker could do what my words (or begging and pleading) could not. He was one of those kids who always ran around with his fingers in his ears. He could not endure listening to words, and the quickest way to make him bolt was to start talking to him.

The event marker, the “click,” would tell him that what he did was good. Wonderful! I discovered over time that I had a simple, effective and inexpensive way to teach my son all kinds of good behaviors, with just click and a treat. Best of all, there were no confusing words or sensory overload for him.

With TAGteach, my son learned to walk with me and stay by my side. He learned how to wait in line at the grocery store and stop at corners for the WALK signal to come on. I learned how to defuse emotional outbursts and cope effectively with tantrums. It is truly a remarkable method. I recommend it to all autism parents for their consideration.

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 can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.


autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementFor more information see the TAGteach International website.

Join the free TAGteach Yahoo Group.

TAGteach taggers are available here. 

See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism or ask a question.

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Martha Gabler

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

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