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Autism Tantrums vs Meltdowns: What is the Difference and How to Deal with Them

If you’re a parent of a child with autism, then you know how difficult it can be to predict what will cause behavioral and emotional meltdowns from day-to-day, situation-to-situation, or environment-to-environment. It can also be challenging to know how to characterize the behaviors; is it a tantrum or a meltdown? While they may look similar externally, it’s important to understand the difference between the two behaviors.

Tantrums

A tantrum is willful behavior that usually occurs when a child is denied something they want to have or do. A hallmark of a tantrum is that the behavior will usually persist if the child gains attention for his behavior, but will subside when ignored. Tantrums slowly go away as a child grows up, but meltdowns may never go away.

Meltdowns 

A meltdown is when the child loses control over his behavior and can only be calmed down by a parent or caregiver, or when he/she reaches the point of exhaustion. A meltdown can occur across a lifespan and isn’t impacted by a rewards system. Meltdowns are reactions to feeling overwhelmed and are often seen as a result of sensory over-stimulation. Sometimes tantrums can lead to meltdowns, so it can be hard to tell the difference between the two outbursts if you are not familiar with your child’s sensory signals.

How can you tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

Frustration vs Overload

A tantrum typically evolves from frustration. For example, a child not getting what they want in that moment, such as a toy, not wanting to go to bed, or being able to zipper their own coat. While tantrums in young children can be more frequent when they are tired, hungry or not feeling well, they are always goal oriented. Either the frustration at not getting what they want, not being able to do what they want, or even not being able to communicate what they want properly.

An autistic meltdown on the other hand is all about being overwhelmed. For someone with autism, when they reach the point of sensory, emotional and information overload, or even just too much unpredictability, it can trigger a variety of external behaviors that are similar to a tantrum (such as crying, yelling or lashing out), or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.

Tantrums need an audience

A child displaying a tantrum behavior will usually stop when the behavior is ignored, when the child is removed from the public space, or when the child gets whatever it is they want. A meltdown on the other hand will occur with or without an audience and can occur even when the person with autism is entirely alone. The meltdown is a response to an external stimulus overload that leads to an emotional explosion (or implosion).

Tips to deal with tantrums

Recognize the behavior

The first step is to figure out why your child is having a tantrum. For example, does the child want attention? Or maybe they were denied something they want? Once you identify the why, then you can better understand how to respond in an appropriate manner.

Reinforce positive behaviors

When your child is responding appropriately to small problems praise or reward them for the behavior. A hug or high-five are proactive ways to avoid tantrum outbursts by teaching your child that he/she has your attention when they are successful. Building on those successes will also help him/her positively respond to situations in the future.

Skill Building

Children who demonstrate temper tantrums frequently struggle with other behaviors, such as impulse control, problem solving, delaying gratification, negotiating, communicating wishes and needs, and self-soothing. Outside of tantrum moments, look for opportunities to build on these skills with your child to help them to be successful.

Tips to deal with meltdowns

Develop a calming routine 

Having an effective calming routine in place is essential. Some people may still need help to calm themselves even after the energy from the meltdown is spent, which may include visual stimuli or music. It is also important in those meltdown moments to seek out a quiet, safe space. This may mean leaving the place that is causing the overstimulation (mall, park, grocery store, etc.), thus changing the amount of sensory input they are exposed to.

Behavior Mapping

Mapping the pattern of behavior of your child to see how escalation occurs is very helpful. You may be able to start a calming routine before total meltdown if you recognize the symptoms of escalation. Sometimes symptoms can include an increase in his self-stimulatory behaviors (rocking, humming, hand flapping, self-injurious behavior, etc.), asking to leave an environment, or simply running away to escape. If you understand what triggers your child, you may be able to stop a meltdown before it happens.

Sensory to-go bag

While you can’t prepare for every situation, you can prepare for some by putting together items that can help your child calm down during a meltdown.

  • Sunglasses – great for light sensitivity; whether the sun is too bright or your child has to deal with the harsh light of florescent light bulbs.
  • Weighted vest or lap pad – can help by applying pressure to your child’s body that provides a calming effect.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones – when noises become too much, noise-cancelling headphones can block out auditory stimuli or other distractions.
  • Hand wipes – unscented wipes can help with any tactile sensitivities when your child accidentally touches something that irritates them.
  • Fidget toy – a simple, repetitive toy that your child prefers can have a calming effect.

Takeaways

Both tantrums and meltdowns are manifestations of difficulty with emotional regulation skills. While tantrums are behavioral in nature, meltdowns have a sensory, physiological basis that warrant different management strategies. While neither are enjoyable to experience, focusing part of your energy on proactively supporting your child’s emotional regulation will go a long way and hopefully lead to positive results.

To learn more tips for children with autism, please contact our professionals at Exceptional Learners.