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.

by Judy Endow

Most young children have tantrums. Typically as they master new skills and become more savvy with expanded communication abilities the tantrums dwindle away. Autistic children have meltdowns and these meltdowns can happen across the life span. For some autistics they never totally disappear. To the casual onlooker an autistic meltdown and a temper tantrum may appear to be the same behavior. It is not. Here are some things to consider when trying to sort out whether the behavior is a temper tantrum or an autistic meltdown. The strategies helpful for tantrums versus meltdowns are different so it becomes important to understand what you are dealing with to effectively impact the situation.

Goal Driven Tantrum Versus Response to Overwhelm Meltdown

Tantrums in young children typically occur when the youngster cannot have something he wants or cannot do something he wishes to do. A tantrum is goal driven behavior designed to persuade the adult in charge to give in to the desires of the youngster.

Autistic meltdowns typically occur as a response to being overwhelmed. Sensory overload is one way being overwhelmed occurs, but becoming overwhelmed can happen in many other sorts of situations. Because the processing of the autistic brain often is not in sync with real time, anything from too many choices to not being able to pull up solutions to an in-the-now problem to an intense emotion that is stuck rather than dissipating over time can be triggers for a meltdown.

Let’s use sensory input as an example. Imagine a glass that is filling with water. The glass is like the autistic person and the water is like the sensory input. As the sensory input accumulates the glass fills. When the glass is full it spills over. The spilling over is the meltdown. There are many ways to prevent meltdowns – to prevent the glass from filling up, but once a meltdown has started there isn’t a way to make it stop at wish – we cannot undo the overflow once there is too much water for the glass. Just as the water must overflow the glass when there isn’t enough room for it in the glass, so must so must energy be spent or worked off to reduce the overwhelm so life can again becomes manageable.

Behavior During the Tantrum Versus Behavior During the Meltdown

While tantrums are a goal driven choice a toddler makes, autistic meltdowns are not goal driven. This plays out with some noticeable differences. For example, a toddler engaged in a temper tantrum will only display the behavior if someone is near enough to see or hear the behavior. If there is no audience the behavior will stop. In fact, the toddler will often pause the behavior, checking to make sure the parent is still there, and then resume the temper tantrum behavior.

Autistic meltdowns will occur with or without an audience. The audience is largely immaterial. In fact, if the adult in charge walks away during a meltdown the meltdown will continue until the energy is spent. The individual engaged in a meltdown does not stop to check for an audience.

Because the 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.

Ending the Tantrum Versus Ending the Meltdown

All parents learn the quickest way to end a toddler’s tantrum is to give in to the demands. Most of us have had the experience of immediately averting the tantrum in the grocery store by putting our youngster’s item of choice in our shopping cart! When a tantrum occurs in the home we can end it by simply removing ourselves from the immediate vicinity or in some other way ignoring the behavior. As a parent or adult in charge we have the power to stop the tantrum by our own behavior. Our choice in making it stop is either to give in to the demands or withdraw our attention from the tantrum behavior.

A meltdown can occur across the lifespan and will not stop until the energy is spent. In fact, giving an individual a favored item or promising a special privilege will not stop a meltdown once it has begun. Likewise, withdrawing your attention will not stop the meltdown. In fact, some individuals experiencing meltdowns may not be able to calm themselves even after the meltdown energy is spent. They may need assistance to calm. This is where a learned calming routine comes in handy. Many benefit from a routine for re-engagement in every day life – a way to get back on track after a meltdown.

Preventing the Tantrum Versus Preventing the Meltdown

Even though the tantrum may be over it is remembered and the experience called up the next time the youngster wants something he cannot have. As parents we have all experienced having to deal with the next bigger and better tantrum after having given in to a previous tantrum! This is because the tantrum is goal driven willful behavior. Because it is willful behavior we can shape it by rewarding desired behavior while ignoring undesired tantrum behavior.

Meltdown behavior is not impacted by reward systems or by shaping efforts because it is not willful, goal driven behavior. However, meltdown behavior, because it is escalating behavior with beginning, middle and end stages, can be mapped out. This is important because different supports are effective at the different stages of escalation to enable individuals to manage their overwhelmed experiences while in the initial stages. Meltdown behavior can be effectively worked with by preventing the escalation (Endow, 2009).

How to Help Kids With Working Memory Issues by Rae Jacobson

Parents Guide to ADHD Medications by Child Mind Institute

The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children by Linda Spiro, PsyD

How to Spot Dyscalculia by Rae Jacobson

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Basics   by Child Mind Institute

How to Help Anxious Kids in Social Situations by Katherine Martinelli

Anxiety in the Classroom by Rachel Ehmke

The Benefits Of Unsupervised Play Will Make You Want To Back Off Your Kids' Activities In A Big Way  by Katie McPherson

How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids by Brigit Katz

3 Defining Features of ADHD That Everyone Overlooks by  William Dodson, M.D.