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Meltdown vs Tantrum in Autism: What’s the Difference?

October 11, 2023

Meltdown vs Tantrum in Autism: What’s the Difference?

The weather channel was blaring, as it always was when a hurricane was coming. This one was forecast as a category one. We weren’t super worried.

Here in South Florida we prepare for hurricanes every year. The preparation increases closer to time, and the list of supplies and steps taken gets longer as the category level rises.

As a mom of special needs kids, I take a similar approach to preparing for tantrums and meltdowns. A general preparedness, followed by an increase in steps depending on if we are dealing with the former or the latter.

Today I want to talk about a meltdown vs tantrum in autism. What is the difference between the two? The way I look at it, one is a category one hurricane, the other, a five.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

The identification

Just as a meteorologist identifies weather patterns, types of storms, and predictions, we must also learn how to identify behavioral patterns, conditions, and kinds of tantrums. In order to prepare for the inevitability of our child struggles, we need to know the difference between a tantrum and an autism meltdown. We need to understand how we can prevent them, know what to do during the “storm”, and how to engage with our child in the aftermath.

To do this, knowing the difference between regular run of the mill tantrums, (which can in their own way be traumatic) and meltdowns is essential. Both tantrums and meltdowns can be intense, frightening, and loud. Some of the “symptoms” displayed are similar, but the differences are important. Here are some signs and symptoms that may be displayed during a temper tantrum or meltdown :

  • loud crying
  • throwing oneself on the floor
  • screaming or yelling
  • slamming doors
  • hitting or kicking
  • using hurtful words
  • disrespectful tone of voice

Parents of autistic children often are told by parents of neurotypical children that their child’s behavior is “normal” and offer discipline advice for curbing meltdowns. These well-meaning people do not understand that discipline and good parenting techniques may help with classic temper tantrums, but meltdowns are not stopped with good parenting techniques and discipline strategies.

The cause

The cause of an emotional explosion or frustrated outburst really has a lot to do with identifying a meltdown or temper tantrum.

Every child will experience temper tantrums throughout their childhood, and even beyond. Even adults sometimes have tantrums. They are the result of not getting one’s way, disappointment, hurt, or frustration.

Tantrums happen to everyone, the severity of each is determined by age, understanding, level of fight or flight response, intensity of disappointment, and emotional intelligence. They are driven by a want or a need that is not being met or is perceived to remain unmet. Keep in mind that tantrums slowly progressing and causing a meltdown is possible.

Meltdowns do not happen to everyone, in autistic children they are an intense reaction to external stimulus overload, they are the body’s attempt to regulate.

The anticipation

Meteorologists have saved many lives by predicting storms and their intensity. Early warning systems have given folks a chance to prepare for storms in advance, enabling them to boost their chances of survival, and allowing them to go through each one better equipped for the duration.

Anticipating a classic temper tantrum is relatively simple. As you know your child, you will be able to anticipate what things they may or may cause them to have a tantrum. This ability to predict, also is a defining factor temper tantrums have, that meltdowns don’t.

Meltdowns are notoriously difficult to predict. They can seem to come out of nowhere, kind of like the tornadoes that sometimes drop during hurricanes. The people involved often feel as though their best chance is to get low, protect themselves as much as possible, and are basically prisoners till the storm is past.

There are early warnings though, that precede meltdowns. These can include:

  • Increasing aggressive behavior
  • finger flicking, hand flapping, or vocal stimming
  • angry or frustrated outburst
  • environments rich, or lacking, in sensory stimuli

Many parents become experts in anticipating autistic meltdowns and learn how to prevent them. They also learn what to do during and after meltdowns to help with managing family meltdown preparedness. If they know it’s coming, they will not be completely overwhelmed.

The intensity

Another identifying factor of tantrums is the intensity. Tantrums can feel intense if you have never experienced a meltdown. The ability to stop them quickly reduces their intensity quite a bit. Rewarding desired behaviors, ignoring the tantrum, giving into the behaviors, and providing comfort can all make typical tantrums less intense.

Meltdowns are like slow moving category five hurricanes. Their damage is done through a variety of factors: wind, rain, tornadoes, floods, lightning, and hail. Autistic meltdown symptoms can be catastrophic and cause damage to property, our precious children, and ourselves. In addition to the ones mentioned above, these symptoms can include:

  • violent behavior
  • willful behavior, purposely doing things that they shouldn’t
  • self harm, headbanging, scratching, pinching
  • intentionally or unintentionally hurt others, including animals
  • running away, also known as eloping
  • destroying or damaging property, on purpose or accidentally

The duration

The classic temper tantrum is short-lived in comparison to autistic meltdowns. Typical tantrums can seem overwhelmingly intense in the moment, but the ability to make them stop usually ensures the ability to stay calm.

Think of it as a fast moving category one storm. Is it intense? Sure. It doesn’t last long though and the damage is slight compared to a slow-moving category 5. That damage can be devastating, even if you are not in the eye of the storm, its reach is long lasting and affects areas beyond its borders.

Autistic meltdowns have been known to last minutes to hours. Escalation occurs when a parent ignores potential triggers, becomes angry or aggressive towards the child in the heat of the moment, uses language designed to threaten or scare the child, initiates unwanted physical contact such as grabbing their arms or legs, holding them down, or moving them from one place to another.

Let me be clear however, escalation can happen when everyone else in the family does the “right thing” during the meltdown. Sometimes safety concerns require parents to maintain physical contact with a child who is melting down.

If the meltdown causes a complete shutdown, it can last even longer. We will go into what can be done to calmly cope, design an effective calming routine, and address safety concerns next.

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Preparing for the storm

Just as those of us in south Florida prepare for hurricanes every year before a storm is even detected, we can prepare for meltdowns and tantrums . Here are some things we can do to get ready for meltdowns.

Have a plan

Every year pamphlets go out giving people a list of things to do to be ready for hurricane season. Trimming the trees, storing up water, gas, generators, hurricane shutters, food etc. Planning for meltdowns and tantrums is no different. We can be less taken by surprise, feel more in control (even though we are not, just like storms), and know how to repair possible damage.

There is a plethora of material on typical temper tantrums out there. Any pediatrician, grandparent, or parent can offer advice. You know your child best, and your parenting style is your own.

For meltdowns, the same is true. However, being prepared for meltdowns is more complex.

Pay attention to your child’s triggers.

Are they stressed by over-stimulating events or places? Prevent sensory overload, and meet sensory needs by:

  • being ready with access to noise canceling headphones and sensory toys.
  • Identify a quiet place to retreat to if needed.
  • Don’t stay as long.

Adopt a protocol

Not knowing what to do can make any situation worse. My husband and I sit down and discuss every situation or event that we know could trigger our son and put a protocol in place. We decided that whichever parent feels the calmest and confident in the moment will follow the protocol.

Ask for help

Often it takes more than one person to help a child through a meltdown. Having another person there for support is important. Though this is not always possible, it’s something that you can put in place beforehand.

I cannot stress this enough. A school counselor, child psychologist, child psychiatrist, Occupational therapist, behavioral therapist, and your own therapist can be wildly helpful in helping you know what to do about meltdowns.

It was our son’s school counselor that discovered that loud noises were a trigger for him, and he needed noise canceling headphones at school. That was added to his IEP and made a huge difference in preventing his meltdowns at school.

Aside from our own separate therapy, my husband and I attend couples therapy to help us as we navigate the challenges facing our family. It was our son’s meltdowns that inspired us to seek help together.

Initiate evaluations through your child’s school so that their diagnosis is recognized and provided for. The accommodations can help a lot and the reduction of stress can prevent meltdowns at school and home.

When meltdowns happen, having a plan will make it easier. Every little bit helps!

Weathering the storm

In a tantrum, someone always wins, either the parent, the child, or both. Figuring out what the child wants or needs and meeting that need (even if it is not in the way or time the child prefers) stops the tantrum.

In a meltdown, no one wins or everyone does. There is no in-between. The winning is found in the before and after of the meltdown.

A child who is melting down will not be able to process instruction, make rational decisions, or take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes they may not even remember right away what happened.

This can leave parents and children with autism feeling out of control, and like they are just along for the ride until the episode is over. How we as parents handle the meltdown often determines the win.

The win, if there is one to be had, will come in the anticipation and planning stage, the follow up/restoration stage, and the way the actual meltdown is handled directly. If the parent wins, the child wins too. If the parent loses, so does the child.

Here are some things you can do during a meltdown:

  • stay calm
  • follow the aforementioned plan
  • reach out to your support person
  • create a safe space
  • speak firmly and kindly
  • separate your melting down child from others
  • listen and validate feelings
  • hugs or distance: depending on your child’s needs
  • collect data: identify new triggers, make notes on what helped, what didn’t, and what made things worse

If we are to make meltdowns productive, we must learn from and through them. We must understand them, prepare for the storm as best as we can, be calm in the storm, and the soft breeze after the hurricane.

The rebuilding

When each hurricane is over, the aftermath has its own set of things to do. Meltdowns and tantrums are no different. Let’s talk about what to do after a meltdown.

Assessing the damage

Aside from physical damage, emotional damage can be done during a meltdown. Words are spoken that last longer than it takes to fix broken objects. Figuring out what went wrong and how to make it better is key.

Learning from mistakes

My husband and I often come together after a meltdown and talk about what we did right, what we learned, what we want to try next time, and how we can support each other.

We also speak to our son. We let him know that it isn’t his fault. We ask him questions that help us understand his needs, and we apologize if we did or said anything we know was not helpful or hurt his feelings. We also accept his apologies as well.

Planning for the future

Use the data you collect to plan for future meltdowns. Sensory input is so important. As we move through the process of each meltdown we learn what our children need.

Let your protocol be flexible so that as you learn, it grows with you. Younger children with autism meltdowns will need different things than autistic adults. Edit your sensory tools accordingly.

Here are some common sensory issues and their accommodations to create a calming routine:

  • bright lights, sunglasses or eye masks
  • needing movement/sensory seeking, exercise ball, swing, being allowed to move around when sitting is usually required, sensory toys and fidgets, listening to calming sounds
  • sensory overload, a quite minimalistic space to retreat to, noise reducing headphones

The summary

I know that comparing meltdowns and tantrums to storms may seem like an overreaction or exaggeration, but honestly, that is how they feel to me. The more I learn and understand though, the more prepared I am.

When I am prepared I am confident and less stressed. I am hoping the information here helps you to feel the same. We are not alone in this and neither are our differently abled children.


Vikas Khullar, Harjit Pal Singh & Manju Bala (2021) Meltdown/Tantrum Detection System for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Applied Artificial Intelligence, 35:15, 1708-1732, DOI: 10.1080/08839514.2021.1991115 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08839514.2021.1991115

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