If you’re a parent of a neurotypical child, you’ve surely experienced the temper tantrums that come along with denying your child that candy bar in the grocery aisle, or (gasp!) making them wear the Sesame Street t-shirt instead of the preferred dinosaur t-shirt!
If you’re a parent of a child with autism, it’s less likely that you can predict what will cause behavioral and emotional breakdowns from day to day, situation to situation, environment to environment.
It is important to recognize the differences between how these behaviors are characterized: tantrums versus meltdowns. They are not the same and cannot be addressed in the same way.
A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child is denied what they want to have or what they want to do.
Parents observe many tantrums during the “terrible twos”. This occurs when young children are developing problem solving skills and beginning to assert their independence. In fact, this “terrible twos” stage is typically experienced between 12 months through 4 years old! When you look at why temper tantrums occur at this stage, it is important to consider typical development and why toddlers are so easily frustrated:
A hallmark of a tantrum is that the behavior will usually persist if the child gains attention for his behavior, but will subside when ignored. When children tantrum, they continue to be in control of their behavior and can adjust the level of the tantrum based on the feedback they receive from adults around them. The tantrums will resolve when the child either gets what he wants or when he realizes that his outburst will not result in getting his way. When parents “give in” to tantrum outbursts, children are more likely to repeat the behavior the next time they are denied what they want or need.
Children who exhibit frequent tantrum outbursts have difficulty regulating emotions associated with anxiety and anger. They can be impulsive in their reactions and, if not addressed appropriately, persistent outbursts (maladaptive responses to problems/not getting his way) can result in social-emotional difficulties as they get older.
A meltdown is when the child loses control over his behavior and can only be calmed down by a parent, or when he reaches the point of exhaustion.
Meltdowns are reactions to feeling overwhelmed and are often seen as a result of sensory overstimulation. Tantrums can lead to meltdowns so it can be hard to tell the difference between the two outbursts (and respond appropriately) if you’re not attuned to your child’s sensory signals. For more information on sensory processing, check out Harkla’s article here.
When a person with autism experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. It’s a physiological "traffic jam" in your central nervous system and the sensory overstimulation is not unlike a maladaptive response to an actual traffic jam. We’ve all had the experience of happily driving to our destination, cruising down the highway singing along to our favorite song, when all of a sudden traffic comes to a dead stop. Now, instead of comfortably cruising (our expectation for the situation), you’re at a standstill surrounded by imposing big trucks, offensive exhaust fumes, blaring horns, and blazing hot sun peeking through your windows. The anxiety of the situation is compounded by the sensations you’re experiencing and, all of a sudden, the music in your own car is too much to bear (sensory overload). The last thing you want is to be stuck in your car in that traffic jam - you want out! But you can’t go anywhere… the typical response at this point is agitation and frustration. Maybe you shut off the radio, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths to calm down (adaptive response). OR maybe you just can’t handle it and have a road rage outburst (maladaptive response)!
In times of anxiety and stress, the sympathetic part of your Autonomic Nervous System produces cortisol hormones and triggers a “fight or flight response.” When people with autism or sensory processing dysfunction experience sensory overstimulation, they are unable to regulate the sensory inputs from their environment and their bodies perceive these inputs as threats. While the road rage analogy may seem extreme, it is important to view these sensory meltdowns as physiological responses and not controllable behavioral reactions. You cannot expect logical, rational responses to sensory situations when your body is perceiving those situations as threatening. Keeping this in mind, the strategies for managing meltdowns are much different than those of managing temper tantrums.
Now that you understand the fundamental differences between temper tantrums and meltdowns, you’ll recognize that the strategies to address tantrums are rooted more in behavioral supports and skill-building.
There are a number of parent-friendly resources that target tantrum management strategies and the majority of them focus on a three-fold approach:
Once you identify WHY your child is tantruming, you can respond more appropriately. Recognize your child’s needs in the moment, without giving into them.
For example: Bobby wanted to choose the TV show but his sister put on Sesame Street before he got to the remote to turn on Dora. Bobby is now on the floor kicking, yelling, and crying (tantrum). Bobby wanted to choose Dora as the TV show but didn’t get his way (purpose of behavior). The adult could calmly, concisely respond with “I see that you are [angry/disappointed/frustrated] because you didn’t get to choose your TV show. When you’re calm, we’ll talk about it (walk away)” (parental response). When Bobby calms down, he can then be engaged in conversation about how to solve the TV show problem but he does not get his Dora TV show immediately.
You’ve heard the saying: “When you’ve met a child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Because every autistic child presents differently, with varied skills, levels of relatedness, communication, and sensory processing profiles, it is impossible to have a one-solution-fits-all approach to managing meltdowns. The following are some tips and strategies that have helped other parents, but you will have to consider these in terms of your individual child’s needs.
We’d all like to avoid meltdowns completely, but that’s not possible. Instead, some parents find it helpful to put strategies in place to minimize the stress and anxiety of daily life that may contribute to a meltdown. Visual schedules, social stories, check off lists, activity or task schedules, and routine sensory diet activities support regulation across the day. Some parents find it helpful to schedule “quiet time” for their child, in order to allow for the downtime proactively before the activity of the day gets to be too much. Building in a “surprise” or “question mark” to visual schedules helps to shape behavioral responses to unexpected changes in routines that are often stressful.
Another key strategy is to get to know your child’s signs of distress - Does he put his hands over his ears? Bolt from the room? Say “Go now!” or “Leave!”, or do you notice an increase in his self-stimulatory behaviors (rocking, humming, hand flapping, self-injurious behavior)? These signs of distress can be indicators that your child is quickly becoming overstimulated and needs your help regulating before reaching the point of meltdown.
In those meltdown moments, seek out a quiet, safe space. This may mean leaving the place that is causing the overstimulation (mall, grocery store, etc). Allowing your child a safe space to calm down will also mean changing the amount of sensory input they are exposed to. Keep yourself calm, limit the verbal language you use, and offer deep touch pressure input to help your child calm down. Read more about Deep Touch Pressure on our blog.
If you’re lucky enough to have an identified “cozy corner” or sensory deprivation area in your home, then great! You’ll find some more great sensory tool box suggestions for home here. If you’re on the go, you’ll want to consider ways to reduce the distractions in your environment and support your child’s ability to regulate with portable strategies.
Here are our top must-haves for a portable sensory tool kit to help with meltdowns on-the-go:
Both tantrums and meltdowns are manifestations of difficulty with emotional regulation skills and if they persist beyond the stages of typical development, can be associated with other diagnoses like ADHD, autism, sensory processing dysfunction, learning disabilities, depression, and anxiety. While tantrums are behavioral in nature, meltdowns have a sensory, physiological basis that warrant different management strategies. While neither are fun outbursts to experience, focus part of your energy on proactively supporting your child’s emotional regulation. In the moments of tantrum or meltdown, use the guidelines we’ve outlined above to find what works for your child and please share with Harkla what management strategies work for you!
"Autistic Meltdown or Temper Tantrum? by Judy Endow, MSW." Ollibean. N.p., 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 25 May 2017.
"26 Sensory Integration Tools for Meltdown Management - Friendship Circle - Special Needs Blog." Friendship Circle -- Special Needs Blog. N.p., 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 May 2017.
Bennett, David D. "Decreasing Tantrum/meltdown Behaviors of School Children with High Functioning Autism through Parent Training." Social Science. N.p., 04 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 May 2017.
Caroline Miller. "Why Do Kids Have Tantrums and Meltdowns?" Child Mind Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2017.
Morin, Amanda. "The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns."Understood.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2017.
"Why Toddlers Throw Temper Tantrums." Parenting. N.p., 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 May 2017.
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