Autism: Is it a tantrum or a meltdown?

I will start this post by saying that I don’t believe having a disability excuses a child when they are displaying ‘ bad behaviour’/’negative behaviour’/’being a little s**t’. Just like any child, a child who has additional needs of any kind can and will be naughty, badly behaved or in a mood that makes them grumpy and irritating. However, in terms of autism it is important to recognise the difference between a tantrum and meltdown. This is because it can affect how you deal with either, and the effect of how it feels for your child.

I am by no means a ‘guru’ in this situation. I can only write what I’ve learnt over a combination of 14ish years working with children and nearly 5 years a Mother to a child who is autistic…and a stubborn pain in the backside (totally gets it from his father, not me).

So, I’ll start by trying to give a definition of both issues…
A meltdown according to the National Autistic Society is ‘an intense response to overwhelming situations’. The analogy I use is it’s a bit like a coiled spring. Each ‘coil’ is a result of a stimulus of some kind – sensory, social, emotional, physical. There comes a time where that coil is so tightly wound (and that can happen very quickly or over time) that it just has to ‘go’. It must release all the energy and nothing you do will stop it until it has worked it all out…or is guided out of it in a safer way.

A tantrum is described by Cambridge Dictionary as ‘a sudden period of uncontrolled anger like a young child’s’. In this way it’s more a form of expressing upset over a situation based on a children’s emotional and possibly communicate ‘inexperience’. They don’t have the understanding or experience of emotions to fully control them yet and so it comes out as ‘undesirable behaviour’.

The definitions are very similar and what you see in front of you when either occurs is often similar. In both you may see shouting/screaming, physical violence, destruction and threats. However, there are differences too…I can only really talk about J, and children I have taught/cared for (in both mainstream and sen provisions).

The Difference

The main difference is the attention. In tantrums the child is looking for a response. They do things right in front of your face, or from a distance but look to see if you’re paying attention. If you ignore it, it can sometimes stop the tantrum (I say sometimes as some children see it as a challenge to increase their efforts for attention). For some of those with autism they will have the episode whether 1 or 1 million people are in the room. They’ll do it even if there’s no one in the room.

You can give in and say ‘here have it’ or ‘there I’ve stopped it’ and they won’t necessarily stop the meltdown because by this point it’s not about the trigger it’s about that fight or flight going on inside them that they just can’t get under control. Whereas a tantrum is usually started by a ‘want’ (more time at the park, that last sweet or to sit in that exact spot despite 20 other perfectly good places to sit) so if the children gets a satisfactory response whether that’s by giving them what they wanted or an adequate compromise (or threat of losing iPad time) then it stops (usually – obviously this depends on the child, if they’re tired and crabby then a tantrum may last longer).

Also, with a meltdown comes that loss of control within themselves. The children lose the concept of safety and rules. It can be dangerous if not adequately supervised and supported. J will run, climb, go out of doors, head butt things (and me!) and get in such a state that he literally can’t see an obstacle in his way. Children having a tantrum may lose a little self-awareness especially if younger and haven’t got a fully developed sense of danger. However you’ll usually find they won’t deliberately hurt themselves (or won’t do it a second time) and will chose ‘safer’ ways to act out such a going to their room, look at where they are throwing things first, threaten to jump from top step rather than just doing it.

There are times where I’ve not been entirely sure if it’s a meltdown or tantrum. Sometimes I think it’s about one thing but it’s actually something else. It’s a constant learning curve and a skill I’ve had to learn to perfect pretty quick (and I’m still not at 100% yet). I need to figure which it is so I know how to deal with it.

So, I tend to have a sort of checklist:
• When and how did it start?
• Who was involved and where are we?
• Has this scenario happened before?
• Is it something that seems really small? What’s the big picture here?
• Is he tired/hungry?
• Has there been any changes to routine or the norm today?
• What is he doing to show his frustration?
• Did it built or come on sudden?
• Can he communicate? Is he showing he’s listening?
• What are his hands doing? Where are his eyes?
This usually helps me. I’ll give you an example of both a tantrum and a meltdown.

1) He saw his cousin had a Capri sun. He knew there was a box of them in the fridge. He asked for one. His cousin said yes and went to get one. She came back and said there wasn’t any so he couldn’t have one

…he went to fridge and found there wasn’t one. He shouted but it was mostly non-coherent. He shut himself away from the people in the room. He tried to go into back garden – I brought him back in as no shoes or coat and was wet. I tried to offer alternatives and speak to him, but responses weren’t relevant to what I was telling him.
I tried distraction by talking about interests – this had no affect and he took himself away from me (in hindsight I did far too much talking so added to the sensory side). I heard a beep from stairs so knew he’d gotten through stair gate and was on the stair lift/chair. I got him off and was met with physical violence. He tried to get out the front door so carried him to the living room.

Incoherent talk and hands in his stress position. He was offered his cousins Capri son (she’s such a kind girl) but this didn’t stop the episode. He simply fell to the floor and was in danger of hurting himself on nearby table and stuff around him. This continued for a while and the level of physical behaviour ranged from biting, punching and kicking out. He wound down eventually and although still in a stressed state he was still and started to talk about interests (he had blanket over him and taken to secured, quiet space and then started arranging figures).

2) J was told he couldn’t have time on Xbox. He started shouting and trying to tell me ‘it IS Xbox time’ and started looking for controllers (I’m not daft, I had hidden them). He tried to bribe me (with hugs and kisses) and when it wasn’t working, he kicked and went to hit me (more controlled and minimal contact). He was taken to his bedroom where he calmed within couple of minutes and apologised. Then continue his play with his Lego.

Can you tell which was which?
Number 1 was a meltdown. It was caused by an expectation that wasn’t met. It wasn’t the Capri-son itself but the fact there was a box and it had drinks in it, then didn’t. It was ‘wrong’ and to him it didn’t make sense. Add to this the fact we were about to transition to go home (transition between things isn’t easy for J), there had been visitors, we had been out that morning to the shops. He had a day full of sensory and social input.
He took himself away and was showing signs of ‘fight or flight’ – he was pacing, trying to get out/flee and couldn’t use or follow verbal communication (it’s usually the first thing to go during sensory difficulties and meltdowns). The fact he was being stopped from fleeing and removing himself added to the situation (but I had to stop him for his own safety, I guided him to a room that was safer).

When offered a Capri-sun it didn’t stop the episode. It wasn’t about the Capri-sun it was the difficulty understand expectation vs reality. Between how things are ‘meant to be’ and how they are. Afterwards he sought sensory ‘come downs’ such as the blanket and the familiar conversation (less social thinking needed as he knew the topic and the answers).

Number 2 was a tantrum. J is four so it’s expected that he’ll have them. No one likes being told ‘no’ to one of their favourite things. Notice how he was more controlled. He tried to talk his way through it and listened to responses – even though he didn’t like them. The physical side was a reflex out of anger rather than the ‘fight or flight’ seen above. He knew it was ‘wrong’ and once he had his ‘time out’ upstairs he calmed quickly, realising he wasn’t going to get Xbox so directed himself to his original play with Lego.

The way I communicate, the way I react and what I do after all depends on recognising if it’s a meltdown or tantrum. A meltdown is an involuntary emotional and physical reaction. It cannot be punished as ‘bad behaviour’ because it’s not. The body and brain have reached its limit and it releases it all. That’s not to say that J gets a ‘free pass’. Once he is calm and the issue is resolved (the best it can be) then we talk about it and we talk about what was and wasn’t acceptable. We talk about what he could try next time. This won’t always work because a meltdown isn’t planned. It’s ‘in the moment’. However, having a discussion (and looking at visuals) after does give J chance to see how the meltdown can be avoided next time. It gives me time to think about how I can help avoid it too and whether anything needs putting in place.

If it’s a tantrum then there’s a consequence such as losing iPad time or toy is taken away etc. Sometimes just a telling off is enough…after all a tantrum is often a child learning to cope with emotions so it doesn’t always have to be a big deal. One thing I’ve learnt is not to threaten an action you won’t go through with – you may get called out on it! In the scenario above J lost the Xbox the next day for the physical side of his behaviour. He wasn’t impressed but he accepted it. H knows mummy will stick to what she says.
I’ll write more another time on how I actually deal with challenging behaviour. Today is more about recognising the difference between a tantrum and meltdown. I asked some fellow SEN bloggers about their experiences.

Here’s what they had to say:

A Sprinkle of Stars: “When she has a tantrum, it’s because she wants something, and I’ve said no, or not now. Its attention seeking, she wants a reaction and will follow me. A meltdown just happens, and she seems to have no control. She’s not seeking attention quite the opposite and wants me to leave her alone. Usually caused by sensory overload/tiredness and (I guess she gets sensory overload from…) Bath time; specifically washing hair”

The Autism Page: “Thankfully meltdowns are rare in our house my 6 year old has probably only ever had 3 or 4. They are when my son is very distressed and usually, I have no idea why. They last a long time and it is extremely hard to help him calm down. Tantrums on the other hand are a regular for my 4 year old. This is when he isn’t getting his own way and or doing something he wants. I can tell if it is a tantrum as it is usually for my benefit and he will usually be looking for my reaction”.

A Curious Journey: “I can usually see it coming when my four year old has a meltdown. Sometimes I can stop it if it’s in its early stages and other times we just have to ride it out together. I try to make sure he’s safe and hold/hug him until he calms down. Sometimes he doesn’t initially want the contact but usually he asks for it eventually. It’s usually because we have to do something he doesn’t want to do, sensory overload or tiredness, or a combination of the three. His tantrums are a lot milder and usually because he wants something he can’t have”

Faith Mummy: “With my non verbal son I would say almost all of his moments are meltdowns because he hasn’t really got the mental capacity to have premeditated tantrums. Even if he did I would still treat them both similar as with no verbal or otherwise means to communicate he needs me to stay calm, understand and support. I tend to get him to a safe calm space, talk quietly and reassuringly and do ‘first…then….’ making sure the then is something highly motivating like a lift. This usually helps him regulate.

With my daughter it’s much clearer. Tantrums for her tend to be verbal demands like ‘I need now!’ But a meltdown is much more like a panic attack or shut down or emotional outburst. I can explain to her why. So if she demands a toy in a shop I can explain I don’t have the money and she might sulk but understand but during a meltdown or shutdown all reason and processing goes”

Identifying whether a behaviour is a child testing the limits, being at the end of their emotional tether, overstimulated, in a mood helps to diffuse situations and resolve issues quicker and hopefully with less fall out.

What’s your views? Does it bother you when people use the term ‘meltdown’ flippantly when it’s really not? Have you experienced a meltdown as an adult who is Autistic? I’d love to hear opinions and experiences from anyone who has experience meltdowns and tantrums. Comment below or find us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.