Updated by Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L
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 meltdowns from day to day, situation to situation, environment to environment.
In this article, we will show you how to recognize the differences between how these behaviors are characterized: autism tantrums versus autism meltdowns.
They are not the same and cannot be addressed in the same way. After discussing each one, we will look at how to best calm down a child with autism depending on if they are having a tantrum or a meltdown.
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.
While a tantrum isn't a meltdown, they are related and can be difficult to decipher, especially if you aren't the direct caregiver to the child.
Next, let’s answer the question. What is an autism meltdown? 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. These will sometimes be referred to as autism outbursts, but we will refer to it solely as an autism meltdown in this article.
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 the 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.
The bottom line is that tantrums are behavioral, learned reactions to certain situations. If the tantrums become severe enough, behavior plans may need to be put in place in an effort to decrease the unwanted behaviors. On the other hand, autism meltdowns are the body’s response to sensory stimuli, when these stimuli are perceived as threatening or overwhelming. 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/
Here are a few examples of motivation children might have:
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.
Catch your child when they ARE responding appropriately to small problems and praise them or reward them for great behavior! A hug, high-five, or “Way to go!” are all ways of proactively avoiding those tantrum outbursts by teaching your child that he has your attention for the times he’s successful too!
Calling attention to what he does right, in the moment, will also help him build on those successes and positively respond in the future! In addition, modeling appropriate behavior yourself or pointing out acceptable behaviors in others can help reinforce appropriate ways for your child to respond and behave.
We know that children who demonstrate temper tantrums frequently struggle with impulse control, problem-solving, delaying gratification, negotiating, communicating wishes and needs, knowing what’s appropriate in given situations, and self-soothing.
Look for opportunities to build on these skills with your child and help them to be successful. It is best to work on these skills outside of tantrum moments, however.
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. This is typically referred to as a sensory diet and can be beneficial in preventing and managing autism meltdowns.
Some common ones that 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.
Next, let’s look at some strategies that may be helpful if your child is already experiencing an autism meltdown. The first strategy is to seek out a quiet, safe space. This may mean leaving the place that is causing the overstimulation (mall, grocery store, etc). Leaving the place of overstimulation will automatically decrease the stimuli that was over-stimulating your child, which means additional calming tools will likely be more effective.
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, help them become grounded by using appropriate eye contact, limit the verbal language you use, and offer deep touch pressure input to help your child calm down.
In some instances, children on the autism spectrum experience extreme meltdowns due to high levels of over-stimulation. In these instances, your child might even engage in aggressive behaviors, such as screaming, kicking, or biting. Anger can be an outcome of over-stimulation, though the child’s intent is usually not to harm others, it is just that their level of tolerance has hit capacity. This can be very stressful for you as a parent, especially if occurring in a public place. In these instances, the most helpful thing to do is to find immediate ways to de-escalate the situation.
Give your child the space they need, while also ensuring their safety and the safety of others around them. If you are able to safely move them away from the area of over-stimulation, this also can be helpful.
Removing the audience when possible is also helpful, as the presence of others may only make the situation worse. In most instances, allowing space will help de-escalate the situation on its own. When your child is starting to calm, it is best to get on their level physically, limit your verbal interactions, and offer any on-the-go calming tools you might have available. For example, a fidget tool or small, weighted item or lap pad.
It is important to note that the classroom can often be a place of over-stimulation for children with autism, due to the number of stimuli occurring and the presence of other people. If a child becomes aggressive in the classroom setting, the strategies mentioned above can be implemented.
As always, it is important to ensure the safety of the child and others above all else. Strategies such as turning off or dimming the lights and removing the audience might be especially helpful in a classroom setting.
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. If you’re lucky enough to have an identified “cozy corner” or sensory deprivation area in your home, then great!
Here are our top must-haves for a portable sensory tool kit to help with meltdowns on-the-go:
Sunglasses can be great for light sensitivity. Whether the sun can be too bright or your child has to deal with the harsh light of fluorescent light bulbs.
Like we mentioned above, deep touch pressure is a way to calm your child. A weighted lap pad can help with this! If you get one like we offer at Harkla, the soft minky fabric can work as a fidget toy as well. And check out our weighted lap animal. It's an adorable option to help provide relief when your child feels stressed.
Often times, noises can become too much. Having a good pair of over the ear noise-canceling headphones to block out auditory stimuli or distraction can really help.
These can be helpful in allowing your child some distance from social interactions and also good for blocking any remaining light.
While snacks are always good to have on hand, crunchy ones can help because oral proprioceptive input is calming and hungry kids are crankier!
These help with any tactile sensitivities when your child accidentally touches something that irritates them.
These can be helpful in combating offensive odors in the environment and instead offer a calming, preferred smell.
Something repetitive, simple, and preferred can have a calming effect. Check out our list of the best fidget toys to get.
As highlighted before, each child’s sensory needs will be different and the tools that are helpful for one child might not be helpful for another. The strategies above can be used across age groups, from toddlers to adults, depending on the individual’s unique needs. An occupational therapist can work with each individual to help assess and determine which sensory tools may be the most beneficial to aid in regulation.
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 warrants 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!
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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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