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Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown

One of the biggest stereotypes that I have seen directed towards Autistic children is that they are spoiled, “sensitive”, and entitled.

More often than not, this belief is spread by people who have witnessed a sensory meltdown and then assumed that the child is throwing a temper tantrum to manipulate those around them. This stereotype has perpetuated so far that even major news outlets have equated bad political behavior as “social autism”.

Let that just sink in for a minute.

This stereotype is so prevalent that major news outlets think it is ok.

As a parent facing these stereotypes for your child it is exhausting from every angle.

Friends and family judging and telling you everything they think you are doing wrong. Strangers chiming in parenting advice, usually while you are in the midst of struggling to help your child. The looks…the judgement…it’s overwhelming.

I’ve been there. More times than I can count. While these stereotypes are frustrating to deal with as a parent, they are even more damaging towards our children. Tantrums and meltdowns are misunderstood and it’s about time we have an open conversation about the two.

How are Meltdowns and Tantrums the Same?

In order to understand the differences between a tantrum and a meltdown, we must first understand what they have in common. Understanding the similarities between tantrums and meltdowns will help you manage both conflicts with grace. So what do tantrums and meltdowns have in common?

Both tantrums are and meltdowns are a lack of skills. Even though the lacking skill set is different in each, both emerge from children not having the skills to successfully navigate their situations.

Both meltdowns and tantrums are also both forms of communication. When a child lacks the words or the ability to communicate their needs, they will use other means, such as behavior, to attempt to communicate.

And lastly, both meltdowns and tantrums are misunderstood. Whether your child is having a tantrum or a meltdown, know this – your child is not a bad child.

Now that we have that out of the way, lets dive a bit deeper into what a temper tantrum and a meltdown both look like.

What is a Temper Tantrum?

A temper tantrum is a behavior to get attention. It has an endgame – give me my want or my need. An outburst from a tantrum has a goal orientated purpose.

Tantrums also need an audience. The function of the tantrum is to get attention.

A tantrum will usually stop if attention is not given or the child gets whatever it is they wanted.

What is a Sensory Meltdown?

A meltdown is a reaction to overwhelm. It is neurological and not controlled like a tantrum is. A child having a sensory meltdown will not be aware of attention, and honestly they do not have the energy to put forth seeking that attention.

A sensory meltdown also will not stop if you “give in” to a child like a tantrum would. This is because it is not something that you can give that has caused the meltdown. Meltdowns are caused by the buildup of sensory overload. A lot like a volcano, the pressure builds as your child tries to regulate their environment until it finally blows.

The last main difference between a meltdown and a tantrum is that a tantrum will not hurt your child, however, a meltdown might. A meltdown is a loss of control and awareness. When your child enters fight or flight (meltdown mode) they are not thinking, just reacting. Because of this there is no hesitation or awareness of how hard they might do something such as flop to the floor.

Autism and Meltdown Causes: 12 Signs of Sensory Overload

Thankfully, there are some signs that may signal to you that your child is on the brink of sensory overload and about to enter a meltdown.

As you read through the list below, click on the boxes next to the sensory overload signs that your child exhibits. Then on another piece of paper, write down the boxes you have clicked or print this article out. This will help you know exactly what to look for in the future.

Loss of balance and orientation
Child repeatedly refuses activity and/or item
Skin flushes or goes pale
Hysteria and/or crying
Stomach issues
Profuse sweating
Stimming
Echolalia
Agigtation and/or anger
Child enters fight or flight
Child verbally says “Stop!”
Child physically covers their ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and/or pulls on clothing

If any of these occur while you are working with a child, please stop the activity. A meltdown is your child’s behavior, telling you this activity is too much for me to handle. Please do not attempt to push the child a little further or see if they can “handle it”. Instead, write the trigger down in your child’s journal, help guide your child through the meltdown, and then at a later time go back to your notes to see where adaptations needs to be made.

Autism Meltdown Strategies

Knowing how to react when your child is in the midst of a meltdown is no easy thing. There are five main strategies you can use to help your child through their meltdown.

1. Calm Yourself First, Then Respond.

When your child is in a meltdown, they may say some pretty hurtful things and act aggressively. Having this level of negative energy directed at you is not an easy task. Just remember, a meltdown is not a misbehavior and it is not a tantrum. Take a deep breath and go forward helping your child as calmly as you can.

Meltdowns are difficult. They can be extremely frustrating. Do not be hard on yourself if you struggle to stay calm and collected.

2. Help Your Child Find a Safe and Quiet Spot.

When your child enters a meltdown the most important and supportive thing that you can do for them is to help them find a safe and quiet space. You might have to get a little bit creative here, but if you can remove your child from the sensory stimulation that is causing their overwhelm, please do.

3. Keep Directions Short and Clear.

When your child is in fight or flight mode, focus will be difficult for them. Make sure that any directions that you gently give your child only includes one step at a time. Talking your child through a meltdown probably will not help, especially if the cause is auditory overload. But, one step directions given in a soft tone may help you remove your child from the current environment quicker.

4. Keep Their Accommodations Within Reach.

If your child has any accommodations that help them, such as noise cancelling headphones, a weighted blanket or vest, or sunglasses, keep those items easily accessible wherever you are. For our outings, I keep smaller items in a backpack that is with us at all time.

5. Remind Your Child That They are OK.

Meltdowns are terrifying. They are disorienting. They also can be quite humiliating (especially to older children) if they happen in public.

During a meltdown let your child know that you will protect them and keep them safe.

And after a meltdown, let your child know that you love them just the way that they are.

Resources and Products for Meltdowns:

Whew! That was a lot of information, but hopefully it will help you navigate your child’s tantrums and meltdowns. If you are seeking more information, below you will find some of our favorite resources:


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