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Is My Child Having a Tantrum or a Meltdown?—Recognizing the Difference

meltdown or tantrumChildren and adults with autism spectrum disorders are susceptible to suffering what are called “meltdowns.” These meltdowns are brought on by communication frustrations, sensory overload, or other usual environmental factors. They difference starkly from a tantrum which can “appear” similar but has the intended purpose of getting what one wants. Learn to tell the difference.

What is a Meltdown?

Meltdowns are common characteristics of children with autism. They may at first sight appear to be the same as a temper tantrum, but if examined, you will be able to see a clearly defined difference. Meltdowns, like temper tantrums, often happen in public places; however, the child in the midst of a meltdown will be unconcerned if the people around him are paying attention, what the social situation entails, and be completely unconcerned with causing harm to himself. The meltdown usually occurs because the outside world has become overwhelming for the child. A brightly lit supermarket, with lots of loud sounds and sights coming at your child may quickly trigger a meltdown. The environment, in this case, has simply become too much. Once a meltdown has begun it is a very difficult, if impossible, to end. The child is no longer in control of their own emotions or behaviors, and no amount of “giving in to what they want” will end the behavior. You simply need to wait out the storm, and let the meltdown run its course. The child is not having a meltdown to intentionally manipulate you or to embarrass you in any way—it is their way of responding to the situation which has overloaded their senses.

How is a Meltdown Different from a Tantrum?

A temper tantrum is an intentional manipulative device used to get one’s own way. It is usually triggered by your denying something that is wanted, by you saying “no.” A child having a temper tantrum will use the social situation to their own advantage. They will look to see who is watching, avoid hurting themselves, and ultimately be appeased if you give in to their demands. A temper tantrum can be stopped when the child gets what he wants—and halted abruptly. This is very different from a meltdown in which there is no control, or manipulation on the part of the child, and the quieting of a meltdown can be a lengthy process.

What Can I do if My Child is Having a Meltdown?

The best way to avoid meltdowns is before they begin. Learning to know your child, what their “triggers” are, and what overwhelms their senses will go a long way in thwarting meltdowns before they begin. Recognizing that your child is becoming overwhelmed and removing them from the situation can often stop the meltdown before the child loses control. If you know that bright lights or loud sounds in particular are “triggers” for your child, you may want to be prepared with noise cancelling headphones, or sunglasses they can wear while you are shopping. It may take a long time to really know what your child’s triggers are, and they may also change with time, but being observant and vigilant looking for possible irritates can help both you and your child avoid these unpleasant situations. No child or adult enjoys meltdowns—they are both physically and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes carrying a known soother/comforting item for your child, like a favorite stuffed animal or blanket, can help them cope in a stressful environment.

Distinguishing the difference between a meltdown and a temper tantrum may sound difficult at first until you understand what triggers your child to become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. Remembering that the temper tantrum is a power play in which a child wants something, wants to get their own way, and has control over will help you to know when disciplinary actions are necessary. A meltdown is neither intentional, or can be controlled once full-blown, and cannot be stopped by “giving in to your child’s wants or demands.” These situations are not intended to manipulate or control the parent, and therefore should not be cause for punishments or sanctions. Understanding and recognizing the signs leading up to the meltdown or overload, can help you prevent, or at least lessen the occurrences of meltdowns.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.