Tantrum vs Autistic Meltdown: What Is The Difference? - Autism Awareness
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.

Buy the Understanding and Addressing Behavior in Individuals with ASD E-Book

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.




Tags: , .

Editorial Policy: Autism Awareness Centre believes that education is the key to success in assisting individuals who have autism and related disorders. Autism Awareness Centre’s mission is to ensure our extensive autism resource selection features the newest titles available in North America. Note that the information contained on this web site should not be used as a substitute for medical care and advice.

Read Our Full Editorial Policy

47 Comments Moderation Policy

  1. Vanessa Vargas says:

    My 3 year old granddaughter has been diagnosed with autism since 2 years old . She’s non verbal. She gets angry when we don’t understand her. But she just started something new a couple of days ago that she didn’t do before. She starts to scream really loud to get dress or get a diaper  change. She never did that before. As well as she  screamed very loud if she don’t get what she wants and doesn’t stop.  What can we do ? 

  2. Pamel says:

    Hi Maureen, my grandson is now 5. He’s been seeing a speech therapist since age 4 since he knew only 4-5 words and wasn’t actually pronouncing them right. The therapist said he’s Autistic and actually called SSD to start paperwork for him. He has improved with some of his speech. However, he hardly sleeps. He’s awake at 5 a.m. and doesn’t go to bed till 3 a.m. during the day he sometimes goes to sleep by lying on his stomach and rocking his leg for 2-3 hours. He has a cell phone and is in the bed with it when everyone else is asleep. He has learned some things like names of items ECT from it. He seems very dependent on the cell phone and goes off the rails when it’s battery is dead or he can’t find it. He is very demanding. He will only want one person and scream thru the house for them, mostly my son, until they come to him. If someone else checks on him because that person is unavailable he screams a lot louder and even throws himself on the floor. Is it normal for him to demand attention from a certain person and not accept anyone else? Is his screaming a tantrum or meltdown? Is it normal for him to sleep so little and can that be harmful?

  3. Sueda says:

    Hi Maureen. My non-verbal 3.5 yr old son throws tantrums over simple things. Like not allowing him to have another cup of ice cream after finishing his 1st cup.

    When this happens, he hurts us. He scratches our face and pulls our hair with full force. If he’s done hurting us, he’ll bang his head to a wall or he’ll look for a soft material where he’ll bang his head. And the tantrum will last for minimum of half an hour.

    We need help.

    We do not know what to do.

  4. Nicole says:

    My son’s girlfriend is autistic; she’s 23 y.o. She gets into these raging tantrums and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s super patient but when he has enough, it’s not funny. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. They tried counselling but it was too expensive. What help could he get? Books, videos?

  5. Katrina says:

    Hi Maureen, My son is 10 and having great difficulty coping at school in the class room. His outburts are anything from destructive , damaging others and school property, rude and obnocious to peers and teachers.

    Could it be anxiety and sensory input triggering these.

    He has multiple supports in place, he would be lucky to learn an hour a day. The rest is managing his behviour. he is on a long acting medication.

    We are unsure where to turn next. As my concern is he will injure someone or himself or be expelled from school.

  6. Maria says:

    Hi Maureen! I have a cousin (6 years old) who has ASD but my aunt does not know why my cousin is having meltdowns everyday for about 20 mins. He likes to eat crunchy food and has stimming (hand flapping around his face) when is not doing something. He likes to play with clay and cars. I searched and does he have tactile sensory problems? Would providing sensory diet and sensory activities like arts and crafts help him to avoid his meltdown throughout the day or help him calm down? Thank you so much!

  7. Kayleigh says:

    My son is 3 years old non verbal but is starting to say odd things but only I understand what he is saying. We are currently waiting for a autism review but the waiting list is 2 years . I’ve been told by the speech therapist he very likey to has asd . He lines he toys up and if one falls out of place he can have a 2 hour melt down. All I can do is to hold him so he don’t harm himself as he throws himself to the floor and head butt’s kicks allsorts . It’s breaking my heart as I know its frustration. I want to be able to communicate back with him . So I’m doing all the research I can. Whilst waiting . But I live above people and the 2am melt downs are hell for me. As he xan wake at 3 and be awake untill 10pm . He has a sister of 5 who is at school they share a.room so it’s causing stress for my girl also as she is tierd all the time.

  8. Alo Chatterjee says:

    Hi Maureen,
    Thank you very much for the information. My kid is 5 years old. He is having a regular meltdown at around 10pm. In this period he bits his grand father, screams, throw things, dances violently. Could you please advise what to do.

  9. Vicente Delgra says:

    Maureen i have the same problem with my autistic son. My advice to you is to look for her strength. Like my son love music so during his meltdown i play the music that he
    love then later on he will be okay.

    I know it’s difficult to raise this kind of child but God has a purpose of everything. Understanding there nature and accepting the reality is the best thing to do.

    Let’s Enjoy our life journey with them 😊

    • Vicente, thank you for taking the time to write. My children have been the greatest gift and have shown me the way to be a better person. Marc loves his classical music too and it keeps him calm. For Julia, it is her cat Mr. Darcy. Understanding adn and acceptance are key on this journey.

  10. Shannon says:

    My son is 3 years old he isn’t talking yet and we are waiting to see a speech therapist. He’s normally fine during the day but at night he wakes up crying, he tries to get his dad to get up with him to go downstairs then he’ll settle for a little while then want to be back upstairs. What can I do to help him? 

    • Your son may be having a bad dream at this time or he is now in the habit of waking up for contact with his dad and a chance to leave his room. I would re-settle him in his room and not take him to another place in the house. He may also have things arranged a certain way in his bed. If that is the case, rearrange the objects like a teddy bear and teach him to set things back right on his own.

      Please tell me more about the routine his dad does with him during night waking. Children often want predictability to feel secure so I suspect a routine around the night waking has developed which he needs to calm down.

  11. AmberLynn says:

    I believe my 5 year old daughter is on the spectrum. I’m struggling. Overwhelmed. At wits end, and feel hopeless. No matter what I try to do it seems nothing works. I am constantly dealing with tantrums (meltdowns) , hitting, slapping, scratching, etc. I cant figure out what’s happening or setting her off. It always seems to be something very small and her reactions never equal the problem. She always is making things much larger then needed to be. I cannot establish a consistent disciplinary system with her bc nothing seems to work. I feel alone and helpless. I want so badly to have good days and for things to run smoothly. Sometimes she’s perfectly fine and then is set off by something seemingly insignificant and unexpected. I’m drowning here and I dont know how to help my daughter. Please help!

  12. RONALD V PERRIER says:

    I wish there were more advice for adults who still have meltdowns. This is all about kids. I am 68 and still have difficulties.

  13. Geraint Williams says:

    Hi my son as been put forward for assement.. Has he delayed.. And showing signs for more underlying issues.. Me I though naughty child.. My wife said something was up.. He don’t sleep.. Its a fight for bed time.. He loves water but soon has he sees a sponge he goes into melt down.. He’s not verbal and coming up to 3yrs.. His tantrums/meltdowns are bad he lashes out at us biting scamming pinching slapping.. He also does the same to himself… Whe we go to walks.. Its a fight to get clothes on him and his shoes to go for a walk… But he gets his shoes to put on but when we try he kicks off.. Anything ticks him off.. If we change something in the house he hates it and take ages for him to adjust.. He will ask us to do somthing for him well point.. And then kicks off once we are doing it.. He ca. Interact with us in play but always ends in a melt down.. Has we have to be a certin way.. Its so challenging and the sleepless night alone are killers.. We have tried all methods with his sleep.. Nothing has worked.. I notice he picks is skin alot headbuttes and slaps and flaps his hands.. Does something with is fingers.. And stares into space alot and moved his lips but no words.. But he’s so cheeky and my next door neighbour boy has been diagnosed with autism and the diff between our kids is vast they boy more inside himself.. But my son forward.. But everything ticks him off.. Any advice.. Am I dealing with a naughty boy and will grow out of it or isi autism.. What books are good reads..

  14. Kevin says:

    I have a 9 year old son that has been struggling with school. Last night when helping him with his math, he worked himself into a panic. I calmly continued to help him with his math, though he wanted to leave and eventually he ran off taking him about 10 – 15 minutes to calm down. It looks like a tantrum to me, but what was concerning to me was when he ran off his physical movements and behavior looked mildly similar to autistic behaviors I’ve seen with other kids with autism. I feel as if he is manipulating us because he doesn’t want to do his homework. Is there something I can try to see if this is simply a tantrum or if it’s potentially autism?

  15. Maxine says:

    Hi there.such valuable information here.i have a 4 year old boy.his a late speaker and if you hear him speak you wouldn’t understand most of what he says.his also not toilet trained which has been ongoing problem to get him to the toilet .his super active.he doesn’t nap during the day.he can wake up at 5am in the morning and sleep at10pm or later at night.he has an obsession for helicopters and fans mainly the part that spins.he bangs his head .bites his nails a d grinds his teeth.he has ongoing meltdowns and screams almost the whole day for no reason.he plays himself most of the time.he gets really aggressive sometimes and can hurt any one around him by throwing stuff or throwing himself around.im really concerned about him.its really challenging to get through every day with his behaviour.im in the process of seeing a paediatric neurologist

  16. Renee says:

    My husband’s daughter is autistic and she is non verbal. She is 5 years old. She will be fine one minute, then if we stop her from doing something that could be dangerous, she gets really mad and tries to either hurt herself or others around her. She will eventually calm down, but it could happen again in an instant. Tonight, she only slept for maybe two hours and she woke up having a meltdown it took an hour and a half for her to calm down. Nothing my husband could do to soothe her. She seems to be becoming more violent and unpredictable as she gets older, she grabbed her brothers face the other day and really hurt him. She bites herself really hard if she can’t find someone else to take out her frustrations on and then she screams even worse because she hurt herself. How can we intervene properly to help stop or lessen the violent behavior?

  17. maria says:

    Hello . my boy is nearly 11. i cannot always understand the reason of his reactions. For example he starts crying and reapiting words or phrases in the morning. So nobody can says that he is sensory overloaded as soon as he woke up. The same behaviour can take place in the middle of the day … it;s all so complicated. He seems that he wants something but still is not clear. He seems to be angry, a bit agressive but he tries hard not to be and generally he looks like he is suffering. He is semi verbal and after when i ask him why was he crying he says he is sad..

    • This crying and repeating words first thing in the morning can be a reaction to stress. Your son may not know what to do first thing in the morning. Try and help him by giving him a breakdown of what will happen in the first 10 minutes of his day. (Take covers off, sit up, put feet on floor, stand up, etc.) He may even feel discomfort with a full bladder first thing in the morning and not understand what the sensation is. Our children with autism have executive functioning problems. This means it can be difficult to get the day organized and get moving. The only thing I can think of here is catatonia. You may find this article helpful – https://network.autism.org.uk/good-practice/evidence-base/catatonia-and-catatonia-type-breakdown-autism

  18. Jessica says:

    my son is speech delayed and has tantrums and meltdowns and he has adhd he don’t have many friends so when kids bully him he calls them his friends he doesn’t fallow simple commands he hits and kicks and bites his sister he has came after me and his sister with a knife and he has tried to choke me all having a meltdown and i’m extreamly concerned about him i don’t think he just has adhd maybe mild autism? im afraid of my own son and so is my daughter we don’t know what to expect next with him and he has act this way since he was two.

    • There are two really good behavior books to have a look at. One is Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child and the other is Bo Elven’s book – Sulky, Rowdy, Rude. You want to look at the practices of the Low Arousal Approach – http://www.lowarousal.com and try to figure out what engages those arousal mechanisms and how to calm your son down. Maybe he does have autism – I am not sure. Challenging behavior can be managed but it has to understood first.

  19. 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?

  20. 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?

  21. 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??

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *