Why do autistic children scream?

This is an assumption that all autistic children scream. They don’t. Lower functioning children on the spectrum scream because they like the sound of their voices and aren’t using them to talk. Or they have a health problem that they can’t tell a parent or doctor about. Pain will make them scream too, and since their pain thresholds are already low, they scream when they even so much as feel a pin prickle.

Parents have to recognize what the different screams mean. Just as a scream of terror in a horror movie means one thing and a scream of surprised means something else in another, so the screams of autistic children who do scream have their own meanings. Watching for other non-verbal body cues help parents figure out why their child is screaming.

A particular form of autism spectrum disorder that only affects girls is called Cri Du Chat, which is French for “cry of the cat”. It’s an extremely rare disorder but has become part of the spectrum because it attacks infant girls at the age of twenty-four months, the same time that autism begins to transform children who have it. Their cries, or screams, sound very much like the piercing cry of a cat being tortured, and will continue it for hours. It’s very unnerving to hear and even more unnerving to be around the whole time it continues. Supposedly over time it decreases as the little girl grows and continues to regress in all of her abilities.

As for high functioning autistic children who scream, they do so because they want you to pay attention to them and they think that if you aren’t looking right at them and acknowledging them when they talk you are ignoring them. They do not like being ignored unless they want to be. This behavior is easily correctable, as high functioning autistic children can respond and learn from discipline just as well as the next child. They just need to be reminded to use their words, because they have them and they can use them.

The spectrum is wide, with many variations on it. Generalizations such as this one about all autistic children screaming is precisely what promotes the stereotype that is hurtful and not helpful. If a child screams, it is safe to always ask the parent why; they might tell you that their child is fine or that he/she has autism spectrum disorder and this is typical for just their child. That is the truth, too. No two autistic children are alike; one may scream and the other doesn’t. It’s just the mysteries of autism. There are many more behavioral problems in children with autism. Apply these powerful behavior management strategies to control an autistic kid.


Filed under Autism Questions & Answers

19 Responses to Why do autistic children scream?

  1. sheila davis

    Hi I live next door to a kid who is on the autism spectrum and screams a fair amount. This article about screaming was very helpful. I don’t like to hear kids scream but this information helped me understand why it happens and what it might be.
    thank you
    sheila davis

    • Thank you Sheila for liking our post. We appreciate your input. And we also commend you for having sympathy now towards autism. I know sometime it does get on our nerves but it’s well worth it. Cause these special angels does offer pure love. You just have to enter into their world. Thank you again. God Bless!

  2. A.D.

    I also live next door to a family who have a son who screams, but it’s sometimes for a quarter of an hour. The first time I heard it (the first day I moved in) it was for such an extensive period of time that I assumed he had some kind of disorder. It’s a daily occurrence, at any time of day. I went over once because he sounded so distressed, I thought maybe someone was hurting him. The parents don’t speak much English, but he seems to be fine, not being abused. He rides his bike around the complex (he’s probably 4 or 5 years old). Perhaps it is autism, just not the way I’ve ever seen it. I wish there was some way to help him. It’s very disturbing.

  3. My brother joe would very often throw his screaming fits for hours at a time. I always felt like he was punishing us for whatever reason. He is a severe autistic and even today at age 46 he has no real communication skills, maybe that of a 3 year old child,he is also very destructive of himself and of property like smashing out windows. The only way he stopped the screaming was when his voice changed around age 13. He also wets and messes in his pants and often masturbates himself in public. It was always known that he has homosexual tendencies and has been caught at it a few times. He also has a tendency towards violence particularly to women.( he nearly killed our mother) He is at Whitten Center in Clinton, South Carolin a and gets very professional care and though they try their very best to train him it is mostly useless as he has changed very little since he was diagnosed at abouit age 3. My parents were duly warned about the RH Blood Factor by an excellent doctor from Union, S.C. named Dr. Fielder and also my mother’s advanced age (40 years). My father is a diagnosed schizophrenic who also has gay tendencies and is destructive and abusive and also would attack our mother in fits of uncontrolled rage. People should pay attention and not have children indiscriminately particularly when one or both parents have mental type issues.

  4. Celeste

    My son is 15 and going through puberty. He’s autistic, plus has another 6 diagnoses. He’s non-verbal and screams a lot when angry, excited, tired… he tantrums like a 4 year old. It’s very difficult to deal with but I try my best. To make my life “easier” my neighbor has started calling the cops. This now excites my son even more, makes him angry when the cops won’t blast the sirens, and then I’m terrified he’ll go into a seizure because he gets to upset.
    Love thy neighbor, right?

    • Eric

      I would learn all the city, county, & state noise ordinances. Every single one, thoroughly. There are bound to be so many that almost everyone will violate them weekly. Then submit your own complaints. Why not, this is a dynamic they wanted so make sure they play by the rules too.

  5. Felicity

    I really do sympathise with parents who have to deal with an autistic child but very few of you seem to realise the impact it has on one being a neighbour to a child who has meltdowns regularly. I have not had a solid night sleep in 4 years (been in my current home for 9 years) since a family with an autistic boy moved in. I desperately just want to have a day or week where my home is the place where I can recharge after a hard days work without being subjected to noise levels which I find intolerable. These occur 7 days a week, 365 days a year and I have spoken to the parents who where totally offended and angry with me. They continually have marital arguments in front of both kids so if its not the boys screaming or having a meltdown its them. I own my property and with the current economy cannot even look at selling it as I would lose money on it. Is it really unfair of me to expect that I can come home at 17h00 and expect to have a peaceful and calm and noise free evening and especially weekend in my own home?

    • Julia

      At least you don’t have to be in direct contact with it, or have to be responsible for the kid, ……my son was recently diagnosed with autism, and he is non-verbal and a screamer, a crier …over anything and everything, even when he’s just playing he’ll yell cause he’s having fun its SOOO STRESSFUL!!! , my last neighbor was so tired of it, so she called CPS on us, and that made matters worse, now every little whimper he makes scares me, I think the cops are going to show up, we can’t even really correct him cause it makes him scream more, but we as devoted, loving, caring parents of these innocent children, stay strong by their sides, no matter how overwhelming and frustrating it can sometimes get, because that’s what good parents do. the point is you think you got it bad, and it’s so unfair…how do you think we feel, were there trying our best with what we got, which isn’t much when you can not control an autistic screaming child. its not your problem ignore it, if its that unbearable then move.

      • Susan

        Julia, your answer to Felicity is inappropriate. She is not being hurtful or unsympathetic but you are.

        She is not related to the screaming child. She has no obligation to that child. She is entitled to the quiet enjoyment of her home, however. You seem to think because life has dealt you a tough hand that everyone should share your misery.

        If you think hearing constant screaming of a child you love is difficult, imagine how difficult it is for someone who does not have that bond with your child.

        If this sounds tough, it’s no tougher than your position that other people should be deprived of sleep, calmness and suffer financial loss because you got a bad deal.

    • susan daglish

      Felicity, you have no idea the impact of dealing with a child who suddenly lets out this high pitched scream. Put yourself in their place. What do you suggest, is the answer to stopping this?? Can you imagine the stress the parents are under. I am a grandparent and I can tell you it not easy!

      • Susan

        Why is this Felicity’s problem to solve? It’s not her child. She has a right to come home to a quiet house – as she did for years before this family moved in.

        Their problems are not hers and asking for a good night’s sleep in one’s home is not unreasonable. Expecting that innocents must suffer is.

    • Lyn

      Felicity, you are correct. Incessant screaming is unacceptable. Its never acceptable to make one’s problems other peoples problems. Unfortunately for some reason if an autistic person makes horrific sounds that are unlike any other sounds made in the neighborhood, all must suffer because as someone said here, the parent is suffering. I am not a believer in that tyoe of entitlement thinking. Yet what is being said here is that the autistic person or their family is not expected to have any respect for you or your family. It is bizarre, illogical and unfair. The screaming and we are not talking normal child sounds, is horrific, depressing and psychologically abusive to those around it. The parents are not using the right behaviour modification tools and or their kid is severe and needs to be placed where professionals know how to handle this.

      • michell

        All you people that are slandering autistic kids and their parents are damn right disgusting and obviously know nothing about it, your all so quick to judge what you don’t know and that’s because you are all ignorant to it and all you see is a screaming kid!! Your all pathetic !!!!!!!!!!!!
        All the parents out there who have autistic kids just ignore these sad people, your doing a great job looking after your kids and it does not matter what anybody thinks especially people who can only broadcast anothers family business on the internet.

  6. shraddha

    My son is 3.3 yr old. He is among the late talkers. But these days I hv noticed, he screams a lot. He screams and if we dont pay attention he himself will come and say “no shouting”. His teacher is very upset as according to her he pushes other kids in class when he is excited. Is it something I worry about? Or its just a passing phase? I am so confused. He is not being diagnosed with any of such disorders. Is this some behaviour issues?

  7. Jonathan

    My near 2 and a half year old screams and cries for no reason. He’ll throw his toys and then scream. We put him to bed, he’ll scream for an hour… he has not been diagnosed but he has many signs of autism. He’s very sociable though.

  8. sarah

    My son now nearly 3 has autism he screeches out a high pitched ear piercing scream constantly, when hes happy, sad, eating, bathing, playing, going to bed even does it in his sleep its just nonstop. Luckily for me my neighbours are very understanding not like a few on here who are basically saying “herd us all up & remove us from suburbs” or lock our kids away in an institution, Shame on you!!!! one can only hope your grandkids/kids are born NORMAL as they will get no support from you.

    • Arm

      Sarah and Susan,

      I am struggling with coping with a screaming autistic child neighbor. They are so close to use that I feel like he is in the same room. I feel for the parents and their non-autistic daughter, but it is really taking a toll on me and my health. I bought my home a year ago and they recently moved into a rental home. I can’t “just sell” my home as people so simply suggest. The family has a tiny one bedroom apartment, without air conditioning so they leave their doors and windows open all hours of the day and night. This means that if he isn’t screaming outside (which he often is, and often unaccompanied) I still am forced to listen to it. I want to start a dialogue with them, but they speak limited English and I don’t know how they will react or retaliate it offended. I don’t believe they have the resources for adequate treatment, and the fact that they let him scream outside, and don’t close their windows tells me that they don’t realize the affect on their surrounding neighbors. Any advice on 1. How to start a dialogue with them (we’ve never met) 2. Coping with their and now my situation would be greatly appreciated.

      I know parents of these children struggle endlessly. But you can’t attack “us” the neighbors for these feelings. It’s really hard on us and we really feel like there is nothing we can do about it. I can’t get him therapy, shut their windows, etc. So rather than attack us and judge us, offer us help on how to approach them and help our neighbors, and learn how to cope.

      • Amy,
        I do understand your situation very well. If possible, find out what language they speak. Write a simple Letter about the situation and then Go to Google translate and do the translation in whatever their language is. I am assuming that you are leaving in a hot climate area. So if you can afford, buy them a small 1 ton A.C which cost around $90 or so. And buy the best Noise-Canceling Headphones and listen to your favorite music once in a while to alter the situation. Also If you can find out if there is any special ed school or instituion available. I kindly request you if you can please help them. Having an autistic child can be very tough for parents. So please help them. That way your situaion will change too. This is my 2 cents.

  9. Joey

    I have a 5 year old high functioning autistic stepdaughter, my two older girls also. My kids were dream children to raise so far. My stepdaughter is very slightly developmentally delayed. She screams less these days, thank God. It used to be frequent. With her, it’s hard to tell what behavior is bratty, or what is more autistic. This is a constant struggle for me. I have learned to push her through her fears, of the pool ladder, of the treehouse, etc. If you observed these moments, you would think I was pushing her too hard, she would cry, shake, drool, scream, repeat random words, like “groceries, groceries help help” I put her back up on the pool ladder 16 times, she was a mess. The next day she climbed right up and it became her favorite thing. Never did she fear it again. I have done this over anything I think she has irrational fear over. This works for my autistic child, maybe not yours, but don’t listen to anyone who says, “don’t change that behavior she is autistic”. My question is this, she is not allowed to scream, we tell her all the time to use her words instead when she is frustrated. I have been mirroring her screaming, but louder, and bigger, this seems not gentle, not appropriate, and counter to good parenting. It does get her attention, I try to roar, like a lion, I try to not be emotional about it, but sometimes I’m angry, the human child scream feels like a neurological trigger, like a baby’s crying, it elicits a primal response. It infuriates me and my kids at times. The response an autistic child gets for annoying behavior is real-world, it’s not always nice, but this is Earth, we are human-apes, and this is, sometimes unfortunately, where the screaming ends up. This is where I am, her and I play a lot, she knows now that I won’t let her get hurt facing her fears, but the scream mirroring is an experiment, as is most of the autism parenting.

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