Autism meltdowns verses temper tantrums

Autism meltdowns verses temper tantrums

On of the most misunderstood autistic behaviors is the meltdown.  Frequently, it is the result of some sort of overwhelming stimulation of which cause is often a mystery to parents and teachers.   They can come on suddenly and catch everyone by surprise.  Autistic children tend to suffer from sensory overload issues that can create meltdowns.  Children who have neurological disorders other than autism can suffer from meltdowns. Unlike temper tantrums, these children are expressing a need to withdraw and slowly collect themselves at their own pace. 

Children who have temper tantrums are looking for attention.  They have the ability to understand that they are trying to manipulate the behavior of the others, caregivers and/or peers.  This perspective taking or "theory of mind" is totally foreign to the autistic child who has NO clue that others cannot "read" their mind or feelings innately.  This inability to understand  other human beings think different thoughts and have different perspectives from them is an eternal cause of frustration.

One on line Autism Support Group offers an excellent detailed explanation of temper tantrums versus meltdowns.  Here are  some highlights:

Temper Tantrums
A temper tantrum is very straightforward. A child does not get his or her own way and, as grandma would say, "pitches a fit." This is not to discount the temper tantrum. They are not fun for anyone.
Tantrums have several qualities that distinguish them from meltdowns.
* A child having a tantrum will look occasionally to see if his or her behavior is getting a reaction.
* A child in the middle of a tantrum will take precautions to be sure they won't get hurt.
* A child who throws a tantrum will attempt to use the social situation to his or her benefit.
* When the situation is resolved, the tantrum will end as suddenly as it began.
* A tantrum will give you the feeling that the child is in control, although he would like you to think he is not.
* A tantrum is thrown to achieve a specific goal and once the goal is met, things return to normal.

If you feel like you are being manipulated by a tantrum, you are right. You are. A tantrum is nothing more than a power play by a person not mature enough to play a subtle game of internal politics. Hold your ground and remember who is in charge.
A temper tantrum in a child who is not autistic is simple to handle. Parents simply ignore the behavior and refuse to give the child what he is demanding. Tantrums usually result when a child makes a request to have or do something that the parent denies. Upon hearing the parent's "no," the tantrum is used as a last-ditch effort.

The qualities of a temper tantrum vary from child to child. When children decide this is the way they are going to handle a given situation, each child's style will dictate how the tantrum appears. Some children will throw themselves on the floor, screaming and kicking. Others will hold their breath, thinking that his "threat" on their life will cause parents to bend. Some children will be extremely vocal and repeatedly yell, "I hate you," for the world to hear. A few children will attempt bribery or blackmail, and although these are quieter methods, this is just as much of a tantrum as screaming. Of course, there are the very few children who pull out all the stops and use all the methods in a tantrum.

Effective parenting, whether a child has autism or not, is learning that you are in control, not the child. This is not a popularity contest. You are not there to wait on your child and indulge her every whim. Buying her every toy she wants isn't going to make her any happier than if you say no. There is no easy way out of this parenting experience. Sometimes you just have to dig in and let the tantrum roar.


If the tantrum is straightforward, the meltdown is every known form of manipulation, anger, and loss of control that the child can muster up to demonstrate. The problem is that the loss of control soon overtakes the child. He needs you to recognize this behavior and rein him back in, as he is unable to do so. A child with autism in the middle of a meltdown desperately needs help to gain control.

* During a meltdown, a child with autism does not look, nor care, if those around him are reacting to his behavior.
* A child in the middle of a meltdown does not consider her own safety.
* A child in a meltdown has no interest or involvement in the social situation.
* Meltdowns will usually continue as though they are moving under their own power and wind down slowly.
* A meltdown conveys the feeling that no one is in control.
* A meltdown usually occurs because a specific want has not been permitted and after that point has been reached, nothing can satisfy the child until the situation is over.

Unlike tantrums, meltdowns can leave even experienced parents at their wit's end, unsure of what to do. When you think of a tantrum, the classic image of a child lying on the floor with kicking feet, swinging arms, and a lot of screaming is probably what comes to mind. This is not even close to a meltdown. A meltdown is best defined by saying it is a total loss of behavioral control. It is loud, risky at times, frustrating, and exhausting.

Meltdowns may be preceded by "silent seizures." This is not always the case, so don't panic, but observe your child after she begins experiencing meltdowns. Does the meltdown have a brief period before onset where your child "spaces out"? Does she seem like she had a few minutes of time when she was totally uninvolved with her environment? If you notice this trend, speak to your physician. This may be the only manifestation of a seizure that you will be aware of.

When your child launches into a meltdown, remove him from any areas that could harm him or he could harm. Glass shelving and doors may become the target of an angry foot, and avoiding injury is the top priority during a meltdown.

Another cause of a meltdown can be other health issues. One example is a child who suffers from migraines. A migraine may hit a child suddenly, and the pain is so totally debilitating that his behavior may spiral downward quickly, resulting in a meltdown. Watch for telltale signs such as sensitivity to light, holding the head, and being unusually sensitive to sound. If a child has other health conditions, and having autism does not preclude this possibility, behavior will be affected


July 12th, 2009



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