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Autism Meltdowns vs Tantrums – Know the Difference

Little Boy Being Carried by his Dad while Having a Meltdown

At some point in your life, whether you’ve realized or not, you’ve witnessed a child have a meltdown. You’ve seen the tears and the anger, the inconsolable frustration and sadness. You quite possibly chalked it up to another childhood tantrum. We all have.

However, these intense displays of emotions aren’t always a classic toddler temper tantrum. Instead, they are actually a meltdown…something much much different.

The Difference Between Meltdowns and Tantrums

Tantrums and meltdowns can look almost identical and without knowing the cause, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference. However, once the cause is known, it is quite easy.

As I discuss in another article, tantrums occur when a child is denied access to something they want or they are trying to escape something they don’t want. They require another person to be involved.

A meltdown, on the other hand, doesn’t require anyone else to be involved, or even present. The child is not being bad or trying to get their way, they are simply so overwhelmed that they no longer have the ability to calmly handle the situation.

Meltdowns are often seen in people with Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Unlike tantrums, which occur because the child does not have a more functional way to say what they need to say, meltdowns may be a lifelong struggle.

You may also like Tips to Avoid Tantrums – Utilize Transition Strategies

Meltdown Triggers

Brightly Colored Ride at an Amusement ParkSensory Overload

It is common or people with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder to be overly sensitive to some stimuli and under sensitive to others. This can easily create a tailor-made meltdown environment.

Loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, fast or erratic movement, and uncomfortable textures are all sensations that can trigger a meltdown in a child. Anywhere that might seem a little bit overwhelming to you can be absolute torture to them.

Change in Routine

Many people with autism are very routine-oriented and if there is a deviation from the routine, a meltdown can ensue. Having a routine creates predictability in a world that is very overwhelming and unpredictable for them, so deviating can create immense feelings of confusion, frustration, and anger.

Communication Issues

Imagine how frustrating it would be to try to communicate with someone who just isn’t understanding what you’re trying to get across. For many non-verbal or minimally-verbal people, they cannot simply tell you what they need or what is bothering them. This, too, can lead to meltdowns.

What to do During a Meltdown

Minimize sensory issues

If you can safely move the individual to a quiet area with minimal stimulation, do so. If the person cannot, or will not, move, do everything you can to minimize the sensory overload already occurring.

Dim the lights. Turn off loud sounds. Open windows to get rid of smells. Tell people to remain still or shield the person from seeing the moving objects. Do anything you can to create a calm environment.

Let Them Stim

Little Boy Jumping in the StreetIf you’re unfamiliar with the term “stimming,” it refers to repetitive motions or sounds emitted by the individual as a way to regain emotional and sensory regulation. It is imperative that you allow a person having a meltdown to stim, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others.

Allow them to flap their hands, rock back-and-forth, jump up and down, or do whatever it is they feel the need to do. These movements may seem odd to you, but, as I said, they help restore emotional and sensory homeostasis to the individual.

Stimming could be the key to them calming down faster and easier.

Make Sure the Person is Safe

If the person is in an unsafe place, do your best to move whatever is making them unsafe. If the person is willing to move, then have them move to a safer area; however, if the person is not willing, do not force them. This will just create more issues and prolong the meltdown. Do everything you can to minimize the issues in the area and monitor the person.

If the person’s stim is harmful to themselves or others, do your best to redirect them to a stim that isn’t harmful. This will not always work as people having meltdowns cannot always be reasoned with. Try to the best of your ability without causing harm to yourself or the individual.

Don’t Say “Calm Down”

The person is trying with all of their might to do exactly that. I know it can be almost reflexive to say “calm down” to a person in distress, but it can actually call more attention to their distress and prolong it.

Be Patient

Meltdowns can take time to pass. You need to be patient and help the person in any way you can. It can be exhausting trying to be there for someone having a meltdown, but it is a thousand times more exhausting to have one.

Stick with it and be ready to help them when they’ve come through to the other side.

What to do After a Meltdown

Relax

Woman Laying on a Couch Under a Blue BlanketMake sure they person stays calm and relaxes after a meltdown. It can be a physically and mentally exhausting ordeal for the person.

Allow them to remove themselves from the situation to sit or lay in a quiet room to recover.

Review

Go back to the beginning of the meltdown and do your best to identify what started it. If you can identify the trigger, you can be ready to avoid it next time.

This can also help the person understand what happened and make better sense of it.

Reaffirm

This is one of the most important steps. Make sure the person knows that they’re not in trouble and that you’re not angry. Thinking that they’ve done something wrong can make it ten times harder to move past what happened. Talk to them and tell them you love them and that they did nothing wrong. Help them understand what happened and talk about ways to make it better for next time.

 

The best way to learn is by asking questions. Please feel free to ask away by leaving me a comment below.

Taylor

8 Comments

  1. This is GREAT information that I think everyone should know, even if you do not have a special needs child. Everyone needs to know more about these things and how to respond to them. I know about special needs, but I still learned a lot from this post. 

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Karissa, I totally agree. Even if someone doesn’t have special needs child, they should still understand the difference. They may be in charge of a special needs child someday, or simply see one in public. Having this information enables them to help and slows their judgement of both the child and the parent, which is so desperately deserved in these situations.

  2. Thank you for your this article and the detailed information about a Meltdown vs. Tantrum in autistic children.

    I just recently have heard something similar on a Radio show and wanted to know more about it, glad I have come to your site.

    A friend of mine has a child (one of three and it is the middle child) which is at the Asperger Spectrum. 

    When my friend’s third child was born her son was a bit older than 3 years old and every time people were come to visit and, of course, made a bit of a fuss about the new Baby he, literally, broke down.

    Of course, everyone tried to calm him down but as you can imagine it wasn’t very helpful to him.

    These meltdowns occurred every time people were visiting the “Baby” or, the infant got bathed and changed on the change table and he couldn’t see it.

    I observed it a few times and I made a suggestion to my friend to go down on his eye-level to make him see what is happening. He did calm down but he didn’t wanted to look at his little sister. He always turned the back and when we thought he was done with seeing the baby and went up again it started all over again to make him upset.

    It took a few more months before finally the parents got a diagnose.

    I do recall that everyone tried to do their best in trying to calm him down it was frustrating, to say the least, and to figure it out how to help him.

    I certainly will forward your article thank you for sharing.

    • Sylvia, what you’re describing actually does sound like a tantrum to me. Her son was not used to competing with someone younger for attention, so when the new baby came, and the attention shifted, the tantrums started. He was looking to draw attention away from the baby and back onto himself. It is quite common with older siblings when the new baby arrives.

      Nonethless, it sounds like your friends handled things quite well! I hope this article is helpful for them in their future adventures.

  3. I have never really thought about the difference between throwing a tantrum and having a meltdown. I probably just thought they were about the same thing.

    Meltdowns can be healthy sometimes as it allows you to get things off your chest instead of allowing them to build up. I was always encouraged to have small meltdowns as much as possible so you avoid having a big meltdown. 

    When someone around me have a meltdown we usually just allow the person to vent off all of their anger and they would cool down by themselves. I have never really made use of the methods that you gave. I would have to give them a try. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jay, for neurotypical people, meldowns can be cathartic. For those with autism, however, they are very stressful and exhausting. These tips are mainly directed at meltdowns in people with autism.

      They do work for neurotypical people as well though. Venting in small, controlled situations is very important and should be done.

  4. Hi Taylor

    You display such understanding of what it is to be autistic, and your advice is spot on.

    I spent a period of my life teaching autistic children at various places on the spectrum, so `I understand where you are coming from. I have had to use many of the strategies which you recommend, and most of the time they do work. It is so important to accept the person for who they are, and work with them to help them, and as you say, tantrums and meltdowns are very different.

    I would definitely recommend your post to anyone who is a parent or carer of an autistic person, and it will no doubt be a great help to them in their everyday lives. Your advice is applicable when caring for an autistic person of any age.

    Thank you so much for your really understanding and helpful post.

    Chrissie 🙂

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