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Autism Meltdown vs Tantrum: What’s the Difference?

March 29, 2024

When discussing autism meltdowns vs tantrums, the best analogy is to compare them to hurricanes. After all, I take a similar approach to preparing for tantrums and meltdowns: general preparedness followed by an increase in steps depending on whether we are dealing with the former or the latter.

So, what is the difference between the two? The way I look at it, a tantrum is a category one hurricane, and a meltdown – a five. Let’s learn more about their differences and what you can do to manage both.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Identifying autism meltdown vs tantrum

In order to know how to manage certain behaviors, it’s important to know how to identify behavioral patterns, conditions, and kinds of tantrums. In order to prepare for the inevitability of our child’s struggles, we need to know the difference between a tantrum and an autism meltdown.

We need to understand how to prevent them, what to do while they’re happening, and how to engage with our children in the aftermath. To do this, it is essential to know the difference between regular run-of-the-mill tantrums and meltdowns.

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 are often 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. However, good parenting and discipline do not stop meltdowns.

The main cause of autism tantrums and meltdowns

The cause of an emotional explosion or frustrated outburst really has a lot to do with identifying a meltdown or temper tantrum. But what are normal toddler tantrums versus autistic meltdowns?

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.

A young boy having a tantrum and crying https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/learning-meltdown-vs-autism-tantrum/

Keep in mind that tantrums slowly progress, 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.

Early warning signs

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

Meltdowns are notoriously difficult to predict. They seem to come out of nowhere. However, there are early warnings that precede meltdowns. 

Early signs of meltdowns 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.

Pay attention to their 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 tantrums, giving in to the behaviors, and providing comfort can all make typical tantrums less intense.

Autistic meltdowns, on the other hand, are much more intense. Their symptoms can be catastrophic and cause damage to property, our precious children, and ourselves.

In addition to the ones mentioned above, the symptoms of autism meltdowns 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 difference in duration

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




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Autistic meltdowns have been known to last minutes to hours. Escalation may occur in the following situations:

  • when a parent ignores potential triggers;
  • when a parent loses patience and becomes angry or aggressive towards the child in the heat of the moment;
  • when a parent uses language designed to threaten or scare the child; 
  • when a parent 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, that 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 experiencing these intense outbursts.

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

How to prepare for tantrums and meltdowns

Autism meltdowns and tantrums can be difficult for both parents and their children on the spectrum. Luckily, there are things you can do to prepare, and here are some of them:

  • Prepare a plan: consult a professional and outline strategies to anticipate and manage meltdowns effectively;
  • Identify and address your child’s triggers: for example, if the trigger is sensory overload, provide necessary accommodations like noise-canceling headphones and access to quiet spaces.
  • Establish clear protocols for managing meltdowns: involve both parents and ensure a calm and consistent response to meltdowns and tantrums.
  • Seek support from professionals: school counselors and therapists can help you understand and address your child’s needs and collaborate with educators to implement necessary accommodations at school.
  • Initiate evaluations through your child’s school: ensure recognition of their diagnosis and provision of appropriate accommodations, reducing stress and preventing meltdowns at home and school.

What to do during an autistic meltdown

A child who is experiencing a meltdown will not be able to process instructions, 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.

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 the child from others,
  • listen and validate feelings,
  • hugs or distance: depending on your child’s needs,
  • collect data: identify new triggers and make notes on what helped, what didn’t, and what made things worse.
A young boy wearing noise-cancelling headphones
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/learning-meltdown-vs-autism-tantrum/

Any form of autism and screaming fits is never easy to experience. However, if we are to make meltdowns productive, we must learn from and through them. We must understand them, prepare for them as best as we can, and stay calm.

What to do after an autistic meltdown

As important as it is to know what to do before and during the meltdown, the aftermath is equally as crucial. Here are some things you can do:

  • Assess the damage: Evaluate emotional and physical impact, focusing on repairing relationships and addressing hurtful words or actions.
  • Learn from mistakes: Communicate openly with your child, discussing what went well and areas for improvement. Reassure them, acknowledge their feelings, and apologize for any actions or words that may have caused harm.
  • Plan for the future: Use insights to adapt future strategies, particularly focusing on sensory needs and accommodations. Maintain flexibility in your meltdown protocol, considering age-related differences in sensory requirements and adjusting tools accordingly.

Learn and grow through each meltdown and tantrum

Understanding the differences between autism meltdowns vs. tantrums, as well as implementing appropriate strategies for each, is essential for effectively supporting individuals on the autism spectrum. 

Preparation and being able to adapt your strategies are the key to managing these difficult situations. 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.

FAQs

Q: What does an autism meltdown look like?

A: An autism meltdown often involves an intense response to overwhelming sensory stimuli or emotional triggers, characterized by a loss of control and difficulty in self-regulation. During a meltdown, individuals may exhibit behaviors such as screaming, crying, or physical aggression as they struggle to cope with their heightened emotional state.

Q: What does a tantrum look like?

A: A tantrum typically involves a child expressing frustration or anger through crying, screaming, or throwing themselves on the floor. These behaviors are often a result of not getting what they want or feeling overwhelmed by emotions.

Q: How can you tell a tantrum from a meltdown?

A: A tantrum is typically a response to not getting what they want, while a meltdown is an extreme reaction to overwhelming sensory input or emotional distress. Tantrums may involve deliberate actions to achieve a desired outcome, whereas meltdowns are often involuntary and difficult for the individual to control.

Q: How do you calm an autistic tantrum?

A: To calm an autistic tantrum, provide a quiet, safe environment and offer sensory tools like weighted blankets or fidget toys for comfort. Additionally, use calming techniques such as deep breathing exercises or gentle reassurance to help the individual regulate their emotions.

Q: What does a silent autistic meltdown look like?

A: A silent autistic meltdown typically involves internal distress without outwardly visible behaviors, such as shutting down or withdrawing from the environment. Individuals may exhibit signs of distress like rocking, pacing, or becoming non-responsive as they struggle to cope with overwhelming sensory or emotional stimuli.

References: 

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

Yalim, T., & Mohamed, S. (2023). Meltdown in Autism: Challenges and Support Needed for Parents of Children with Autism. International Journal of Academic Research in Progressive Education and Development, 12(1), 850–876. https://hrmars.com/papers_submitted/16184/meltdown-in-autism-challenges-and-support-needed-for-parents-of-children-with-autism.pdf 

Alexis Beauchamp-Châtel, Valérie Courchesne, Baudouin Forgeot d’Arc, Laurent Mottron, Are tantrums in autism distinct from those of other childhood conditions? A comparative prevalence and naturalistic study, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Volume 62, 2019, Pages 66-74, ISSN 1750-9467, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2019.03.003

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