The Key Differences Between Tantrums and Autistic Meltdowns

Many of us have been in a situation where our child or a child around us has broken down in a sea of emotions. For the outsider looking in, it seems like a child having a tantrum, but there are key differences between a regular tantrum and a child with autism experiencing a completely uncontrollable meltdown.

A tantrum is a behavior that a child enters into willfully and therefore it can be calmed by rewarding that child when they start displaying a desired behavior. Tantrums tend to happen more frequently when a child is young and slowly go away as the child grows and matures.

An autistic meltdown can occur across a lifespan and isn’t impacted by a reward system. Most autistic meltdowns occur when your child on the spectrum is overwhelmed or is experiencing sensory overload.

Beautiful Minds Center for Autism, a Los Angeles based autism service provider and experts in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA Therapy) have put together a few ways to make it easier for parents of child with autism to tell the difference between the two behaviors and have offered ways to help a child who is experiencing an autistic meltdown vs a child experiencing a tantrum.

What are the Differences between a Tantrum and an Autistic Meltdown?

1. One is goal oriented (meaning your child wants something and isn’t getting it so they throw a tantrum hoping you will get sick of the tears and give in) and one is overload (meaning your child with autism has reached their boiling point. They are so overwhelmed that they can’t control their emotions any longer. They have reached a sensory, emotional or informational overload and it is just too much for them so they break down). With a meltdown you can expect similar behavior to a tantrum (yelling, crying, lashing out) or your child could just completely shut down.
2. A tantrum needs an audience. This behavior occurs purposely and when the parents or caregivers are around to witness it in order for the child to get what they want. When your child is experiencing a tantrum it is best to ignore the behavior until they are able to calm themselves down and (if in public) it it’s best to remove them from the public place, since a change of scenery can also help calm this behavior.
3. Meltdowns will happen with or without an audience.  They are what happens when the child gets overloaded and explodes (or implodes with emotions).

Simply put tantrums are angry outbursts of emotions while meltdowns are a reaction to being overwhelmed. A child with autism has no control of their meltdowns and will not benefit from distractions, or forms of discipline.

What Can You Do To Help A Child Experiencing an Autistic Meltdown?

The first thing you should do is establish a safe space for your child. A place you can direct them where they can hit pillows, yell and scream without hurting themselves or others.  Since there is no stopping a meltdown, it is important for this to be a space your child can be safe in until their have exerted all of their energy.

It is also important to establish a calming routine and practice it with your child on the spectrum when they are not in meltdown mode so that they can turn to their calming technique when they need it most. This can include a variety of visuals, music, and books to help them stay calm.

Lastly, it is important for the parent to map their child’s patterns of behavior so they can see when and how the escalation of a meltdown occurred. If you know what is triggering your child’s meltdown you can start a calming routine at the first sign of frustration and with time, you may be able to stop a meltdown even before it happens.

More important than anything else is to do whatever you can to stay calm during a meltdown. Learning to cope calmly and having the proper strategies in place will be the best way you can help your child on the spectrum.

That’s where Beautiful Mind Center for Autism comes in. Our extremely talented teams of behavioral therapists evaluate each child’s behavior and work with our clinical directors to create individualized treatment plans that help both the child and their parents address the specific behavioral issues. Then the proper behavioral therapy gets put in place to help redirect inappropriate behaviors and emotional meltdowns.