Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Often children on the autism spectrum have meltdowns, and frequently families that I work with express stress and anxiety as a result of a stranger judging them and their child in the shops, thinking that their child is simply just "chucking a tantrum". Parents of a child with autism - this is for you.

The difference between tantrums and an autism meltdown

Every child has a tantrum (or few) in their life, but there are some really significant differences in a normal tantrum, and an autism meltdown.

Tantrums can be a way of getting what they want, and manipulating the adults around them. Often the child escalates their behaviour to a point that you feel you can no longer ignore it, and you give them the attention they wanted, and sometimes whatever it is they were having a tantrum over to start with. During a tantrum, the child is usually aware and somewhat in control, and often giving them what they wanted calms them down.

**Please note: often our toddlers have huge emotions in their tiny little bodies. Dealing with disappointment, frustration, sadness etc is a normal learning experience for children. In these circumstances, it is important to reflect with your child about what they are experiencing, and support their learning of this emotion - “Johnny I know it’s disappointing when it’s time to go and you aren’t ready to leave yet”.

Autism meltdowns are completely out of the child's control, and it's often a result of the child becoming so overwhelmed that their little bodies actually don't function anymore. The child isn't looking for attention, and giving them what you think they wanted often doesn't make a difference.

Some triggers include:

  1. Sensory Overload - if a child has sensory processing difficulties, often us adults won't know exactly what has triggered the child's meltdown, instead all the sensory experiences they have had coming into their body have just added up to too much and caused their system to crash.

  2. Changes in routine - children with autism often struggle to be flexible with events, and to know what is going to happen throughout the day. A simple change in expectations or of the routine can cause a huge spike in fear and anxiety, and then you get the meltdown.

  3. Emotions - lots of children with autism can go from happy to distraught in ten seconds flat. Their ability to control and experience their emotions is impaired, and often they are confused by everyone else's emotions too. Children with autism often also have underlying anxiety that can impact on their meltdowns too.

So next time you see a parent in the shop or out in the community with a completely distraught child, spare a thought for those raising a child with extra needs - give their child space, smile at them and offer assistance if you can.

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