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Family Health

The Difference Between A Tantrum And An Autistic Meltdown

Nov 16, 2018

If you have an autistic child, then meltdowns are likely all too familiar and common. You know what they look like and may even know your child's meltdown triggers already.

However, most people don't know what a meltdown is; they assume it's just a tantrum.

Many people use the words meltdown and tantrums interchangeably, but the thing is, they are two completely different things.

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Before I became a parent, I was probably guilty of this too as I simply had no idea that they were different. Now I know all too well the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum because I've had to manage my fair share of them over the years. Sometimes I've even had to handle a meltdown from one child while the other was throwing a tantrum — those days are the worst.

On the surface, a meltdown and a tantrum may look the same, showing similar types of physical behaviours. However, they are not the same and should not be treated the same. 

Meltdowns vs. Tantrums: What’s the Difference?

A meltdown is an intense reaction to being overwhelmed or overstimulated. When a person is having a meltdown, they are struggling to regulate their bodies based on the sensory information that they are receiving. Basically, their bodies interpret this incoming sensory information as a threat.

A tantrum, on the other hand, is driven by a want or a need. Tantrums occur when a child is denied something that they want. They are often about gaining attention or having an audience, and they usually subside when the behaviours are ignored. Meltdowns, in comparison, do not subside when ignored. They persist with or without an audience.

8 Ways to Help Your Child When They're Having a Meltdown

Meltdowns are extreme in autistic children and they can be difficult for both the child and the parent. As a child during the middle of a meltdown, they might not be able to verbalize what is going on. They won't be in control of their bodies and may sometimes make unsafe decisions. As a parent, it can be overwhelming and scary to witness, but there are lots of things you can do to help.

1. Keep your child safe and provide them with a safe space.

During a meltdown, your child may make unsafe decisions such as hitting someone, breaking a nearby object, throwing an object, etc. Remove things from the environment that may become dangerous to your child or those around your child. You can also try to remove your child from the environment, but oftentimes, that won't be possible. Create a calm down corner ahead of time as a safe place to retreat to during a meltdown is also a great idea.

2. Try to stay calm.

This point is so important. I know it's hard to stay unruffled, but you absolutely have to. Take a deep breath and wait for the meltdown to finish. Stay with your child and be present.

3. Limit verbal language you use.

During a meltdown, you can't expect logical or rational responses from your child so trying to reason with them is a waste of time. Just don't even bother. Instead, use short phrases like "I'm here" or "you're safe" during the meltdown to remind them you are there to help them. Do not try to have a conversation with them about what is going on. You'll just be adding to the "noise" they are currently being overwhelmed by.

4. Give your child time.

Meltdowns can vary in length, sometimes lasting an hour or longer. Even after the meltdown is done, your child needs time to recoup and rest. Don't dive into a discussion immediately after the meltdown to figure out what was going on. Your child just spent a lot of energy during the meltdown and needs a chance to rest first.

5. Provide deep pressure.

Deep pressure is extremely calming. You may find it helpful to provide your child some form of deep pressure during a meltdown, such as a tight hug. Watch your child closely to see if they would be receptive to the idea of deep pressure. If not, wait until the meltdown is over to offer deep pressure.

Also Try Reading: How To Create A Calm-Down Space For Your Kids

6. Track behaviours so you can identify patterns and triggers.

Be sure to make note of what lead up to the meltdown, what happened during the meltdown, and how long the meltdown lasted. Writing this information down in a journal can help you identify patterns and potential triggers so that you can hopefully, one day, help your child regulate and avoid or reduce the intensity of a future meltdown.

7. Provide calm-down tools.

Creating a calm-down kit for your child can be extremely helpful. It should be filled with fidgets and tools that your child enjoys and can use to help them regulate their bodies.

8. Never punish your child for a meltdown.

It's important to remember that punishing a child for a meltdown is never a good idea. Your child wasn't behaving this way to get attention. It was your child's physiological response to the stimuli around them.

Article Author Dyan Robson
Dyan Robson

Read more from Dyan here.

Married to her high school sweetheart, Dyan is mom to two boys, J and K, who also teaches piano out of her home. On her blog And Next Comes L, Dyan shares her story of raising a child with hyperlexia, hypernumeracy and autism, amongst a variety of sensory activities for kids. You can find out more about their story on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.


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