Three years old boy having autistic meltdown

Tantrum vs Autistic Meltdown: What Is The Difference?

Many parents and caregivers have witnessed the fireworks of anger and emotion from a person with autism, and from the outside they look exactly like the tantrums of young children. While they may look similar in external behaviour, it’s important to understand the difference between the two. A tantrum is willful behaviour in younger children and therefore can be shaped by rewarding desired behaviours, whereas a meltdown can occur across a lifespan and isn’t impacted by a rewards system. Tantrums slowly go away as a child grows up, but meltdowns may never go away. Of course children with autism can also have classic temper tantrums, but understanding the difference is important because tantrums need one kind of response, but that same response will only make things worse for a person have an autistic meltdown from being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.

How can you tell an autistic meltdown from a tantrum?

1)Goal oriented vs overload. A tantrum in a young child typically stems from frustration from not getting what they want in that moment: wether it is a toy, being able to button up their own shirts, or not wanting to go to bed . 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 behaviours that are similar to a tantrum (such as crying, yelling, or lashing out), or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.

2)Tantrums need an audience. Tantrum behaviour will usually stop when the parent ignores the behaviour, when the child is removed from a public space where the behaviour is occurring, or when the child gets whatever it is they want (although this is not necessarily the best way to deal with tantrums). An autistic meltdown will occur with or without an audience. They can occur when the person with autism is entirely alone. They are the response of an external stimulus overload that leads to an emotional explosion (or implosion).

3)To put it simply: tantrums are an angry or frustrated outburst, while autistic meltdowns are a reaction to being overwhelmed. A person with autism has no control over their meltdowns, and will not benefit from the normal measures to reduce tantrums like distraction, hugs, incentives to ‘behave’, or any form of discipline.

What Can I Do To Help A Person Having An Autistic Meltdown?

As Judy Endow says in her wonderful blog post on the topic:

[Since an] autistic meltdown is the body’s attempt to gain equilibrium by expending energy, safety concerns often loom large. In fact, safety becomes the focus of attention during the autistic meltdown. The goal for the support person at the height of a meltdown is to ensure safety, knowing the meltdown will continue until the energy is spent. There is no stopping a meltdown in progress.

1)Ensure safety. Individuals with autism may unintentionally hurt themselves or others during their meltdowns. Have a strategy in place to keep the individual and yourself safe from harm. Personally, I love the unapologetically non-violent Low Arousal Approach, which in my opinion is one of the best strategies available for coping with meltdowns. [ Managing Family Meltdown]

2)Develop a calming routine. Having an effective calming routine in place for both children and adults is very helpful. Some people may still need help to calm themselves even after the energy from the meltdown is spent. This may include visuals, or music…whatever works best. A great book that I found for this is When My Worries Get Too Big by Kari Dunn Buron.

3)Mapping the pattern of behaviour in your child or ward to see how escalation occurs can be very helpful. It may be possible to start a calming routine before total meltdown if you are aware of the symptoms of escalation. Symptoms can include  more than normal stimming, or rocking, asking to leave an environment, or simply bolting to escape etc… If you understand what triggers your child, student, or ward you may be able to stop a meltdown before it happens. An excellent resource for this is No More Meltdowns by Jed. E. Baker.

4)Stay calm yourself. This is a big one – meltdowns normally have trackable escalation, so keeping yourself calm so that you don’t add to that escalation is essential. If you have a person with autism in your life, chances are meltdowns are going to happen. Learning to calmly cope with them and having a strategy that works for you is the best way to help. From Anxiety to Meltdown by Deborah Lipsky is a fantastic resource.

 

 

 

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  1. Kammi says:

    Me & my husband feel like there’s no way of helping him. He blows up and doesn’t stop. It can be short or long. He’s almost 9 with autism Asperger’s. I try to talk to him but it doesn’t work. What do we do ?

    • Kammi, without seeing how these episodes start, it’s hard for me to say what to do. I would have a look at the Low Arousal Approach (www.lowarousal.com) which has been the most effective intervention I’ve seen for challenging behavior. You can also look at the book “Outsmarting Explosive Behavior” by Judy Endow. Usually, we are the ones that are the triggers for this behavior without meaning to be. There is also a great book called Managing Family Meltdown which talks about the Low Arousal Approach. There is a series of 14 short videos by my colleague, Bo Elven that talks about the principles of the Low Arousal Approach – they are about 2 minutes each – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCw67Ll-kHuQN8eJDHtiMHAg . There is a strong chance that your son doesn’t remember these episodes. He is not in control of them. You will have to figure out what the triggers are and change those if you can. For example, does he blow up when you start asking him to do a task before bedtime? Start to keep some notes on what has happened just before the outburst. He is more prone to these outbursts when a transition is happening?

  2. Camille Ratliff says:

    I have a 4 year old son on the spectrum and he is starting to have serious meltdowns and it really seems like it starts off as a tantrum when he doesnt get what he want right in the moment he asks then, it turns into a meltdown and whatever he originally wanted won’t even calm him down and I can’t do anything to I help him but prevent him from hurting himself or others. I’m so afraid to have him start back school. He is non verbal and think that is a big contributor to the meltdowns. He gets overwhelmed easily and he’s more comfortable at home or at his grandparents house, basically controlled environments. I wonder if I should get him out more to help him adapt to different settings. Is it common for the meltdowns to decrease with age? Any advice?

  3. jo morrison says:

    Elementary school children demonstrate the tantrum or meltdown behaviors and it is difficult to detect the difference. I often see reaction to NO….. you can’t butt in line, have an extra turn, hit other kids, wear your flip flops to school, etc. To me this is a tantrum. They cry, stomp their feet, scream, pout, roll eyes, talk/yell back using inappropriate/disrespectful language. to me that is a tantrum. Your thoughts??

  4. Judith brumm says:

    My 9 year old grandson has meltdowns which are extremely violent but only occur at home. I regularly mind him, I have clear rules and expectations of ok behaviour and am able to stop him by telling him it is not acceptable in my home and limiting stimuli. His mother tells me it happens at home because he feels safe to let go there. I believe that a lot can be achieved in managing the behaviours. I think that a lot of what occurs at home is that is now what they expect from him and he duly complies. Please tell me if I’ve got it wrong, as my daughter continually tells me. She is a special ed teacher ! 

    • I am a firm believer in something called the Low Arousal Approach. This is understanding when arousal mechanisms are becoming engaged and how to deescalate situations that can become triggers for challenging behavior. There is a good book called “Managing Family Meltdown”. Usually, we are the ones playing the major role in triggering challenging behavior. Limiting stimuli is key to lowering arousal states. Exercise is also a good stress manager. We also can’t forget the happiness piece too – what does the boy have that makes him happy and his life meaningful? Clear expectations help as well as less talk when a meltdown may be building.

  5. cathy says:

    Does the book you reference (Lipsky’s) address more of the shutdown/withdrawal ” or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.” My son is more likely to do that than a lashing out tantrum. But teachers don’t know how to deal with the Asperger kid who doesn’t ask questions and just puts his head down in defeat in the middle of class.

    • Lipsky’s book addresses both tantrums and shutdowns. My daughter exhibits withdrawal when overwhelmed or upset. Lipsky is on the spectrum – this book is a very good read.

  6. Alix says:

    This is a really great description of the difference between a tantrum and an autistic meltdown. Such valuable information for parents and professionals. Thanks.

  7. Pauline Pekrul says:

    Thank you for an amazing clarification between the two. I have often pondered what is the difference because I believe that there was just from the circumstances & situation from which either the tantrum or meltdown occurred. Like sently our oldest son has been finding the social demands of school difficult (especially with one peer) which has been causing him to wake up screaming from nightmare pretaining to these same social encounters as well as some too sensitive (to him) materials he’s had to view for health class : all of which has added to the several meltdowns we’ve been witnessing too. Yes there has been tantrums too but their causes /triggers are significantly different therefore I totally agree with your blog on the topic of tantrums vs Autisic meltdowns. I’m still learning betters ways of handling them , your blog will help & all the additional resources you’ve included . Again thank you so very much!

  8. Tanice says:

    Hi Maureen – are you saying a child with autism can’t also have a tantrum?

    • No – not at all. Children with ASD do have tantrums. The problem is many people think a tantrum and a meltdown are the same thing. The best explanation of the two I’ve ever read is in Debra Lipsky’s book called “From Anxiety to Meltdown”. Meltdowns occur due to sensory overload or too many demands for example. A tantrum is behaviorally based and often serves a purpose to attain something.

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