Autism: When a Child's Meltdown is More Than a Simple Tantrum

Autism: When a Child’s Meltdown is More Than a Simple Tantrum

Tantrums are something every parent eventually has to deal with. Some are entertaining, some are frustrating, and some can be unbearable.

When dealing with a classic tantrum, the end game for the child is almost always to get something…whether it is a certain toy or a specific response. When a child with autism is showing tantrum-like behavior, it can actually be a meltdown. The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown can affect the proper parental response to resolve the situation.

What is Autism?

First and foremost, there are many different types of autism. The National Institute of Mental Health defines autism as “a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. It is also a “‘spectrum’ disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience.”

Because there are many types of autism, there is no one way to interpret it. Children with autism usually show signs of delayed development in some areas, but show many strengths as well. Each child with autism is different, just as each child without autism is different. 

However, when it comes to classic tantrums vs. meltdowns, there is a difference to be noticed.

The Difference Between Tantrum and Meltdown - KIDPRESSROOM

What Separates a Tantrum and a Meltdown?

According to The Autism Awareness Centre, the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown involves three separate factors.

When a child is throwing a tantrum, they are doing it often because they aren’t getting the object or response they want in the moment. The tantrum will typically subside if the parent ignores the behavior, takes the child away from the environment and redirects the child, or simply gives in and gives the child what they wanted. Tantrums will happen more often in certain situations, or if the child is hungry, tired, etc. 

A meltdown for an autistic child happens when the current environment overwhelms that child in some way. Either there isn’t enough routine or structure (lots of unpredictability), or they are simply experiencing a sensory overload. This is something that the child cannot control, therefore making it a meltdown. 

A meltdown is a behavior that can happen whether the child is in public or alone because it is a reaction to being overwhelmed by something. For example, simply being in public spaces with tons of people can be the cause of a meltdown.

What Can We Do When Meltdown Happens?

Depending on what is overwhelming the child, there are various things we can do when a meltdown occurs:

1. Remove the trigger (if possible)

The trigger of a meltdown can be anything that is causing the child to be over-stimulated. Removing that trigger can help to calm the child down. For example, leaving a store to go to a quieter place or turning off loud music.

2. Try to redirect your child

If there is a way to redirect or even distract the child, it can help calm them down. By giving them something else to focus on, it could alleviate the meltdown.

3. Put together a meltdown kit

Having tools from home that make the child feel calm or safe will help with meltdowns. Even in an overwhelming environment, the child can get entertained and focus on the activities that they really love to play with or toys that make them happy. This can give them a sense of stability.

4. Weighted blankets

Weighted blankets for autistic children are a great soother. The blanket provides pressure to the body, which has a calming effect and helps the child to feel relief.


Final Thoughts

As parents and caregivers, it will always be challenging to handle tantrums. Understanding the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown will help you know how to best approach the situation.  

Have you ever dealt with a child having a meltdown? How did you handle it? Share your thoughts below to potentially help other families.