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What’s an autistic meltdown? A guide to tantrums and meltdowns

What’s an autistic meltdown? A guide to tantrums and meltdowns

Updated: November 4, 2023 · 3 Minute Read

Marsha BCBA

Reviewed by:

Marsha Stepensky, MS.Ed, BCBA

Highlights

  • Although tantrums and meltdowns look similar, they are very different
  • Autistic meltdowns can happen at any age, are very complex in nature, and can be difficult to manage
  • Knowing your child’s environmental triggers and behavioral signals can help you understand why the meltdowns happen and allow you to be more prepared in preventing and managing them
  • When addressing challenging behaviors, it’s good idea to speak with your doctor to rule out any possible medical conditions like a headache or sinus infection

What’s an autistic meltdown? And what's the difference between tantrums and meltdowns?

Many people are familiar with the scene of an exhausted parent trying to mediate their toddler's tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. But for many parents, it's not an “ordinary” temper tantrum. Autistic children can experience an intense explosion of emotions that might be accompanied by screaming or harmful behaviors – this is known as a meltdown. Differentiating between tantrums and meltdowns can be difficult, but understanding them can help you prevent and manage them better:

  • Autistic meltdowns, unlike tantrums, are not related to age. Tantrums become less frequent as children learn communication and self-regulation skills, while autistic meltdowns may occur across the lifespan
  • Tantrums happen when a child wants something and meltdowns happen when they feel overwhelmed. Usually, tantrums are goal-oriented, like when a child wants something or is trying to avoid something. Meltdowns are uncontrollable emotional and behavioral responses to stimuli in the person's environment. This "overstimulation" can be caused by lights, sounds, people, or other factors like pain, communication barriers, or unexpected changes to routines.
  • Tantrums are quick, while meltdowns are more complex. Tantrums generally begin suddenly and end once the child gets what they want, or tire themselves out. Autistic meltdowns are more complex. Unlike tantrums, meltdowns often have a brewing period called "the rumbling stage". The rumbling stage is behavior changes you can see, like pacing, increased heart rate, cursing, or an increase in stimming (like hand flapping and rocking). Because there is no "end goal" and meltdowns cannot be controlled, a meltdown can last for a few minutes to a few hours and may require more than one person or strategy to help.

 

What are all the signs that it’s a meltdown?

An important exercise is to identify your child’s triggers and signals

 

A “trigger” is an event in the person’s environment that happens before the meltdown occurs. Usually it happens just before but sometimes there is a delay. Common triggers include: 

  • Unexpected change to routine or schedule
  • Being told “no”or  being told to wait
  • Crowded environment
  • Loud, irritating noises (sirens, fire alarms, music), unpleasant smells, cold/hot temperatures, bright lights
  • Uncomfortable clothing
  • Being touched unexpectedly
  • End of highly preferred activity
  • Your own body language can sometimes be a trigger, like standing with your arms crossed or snapping your fingers

 

By identifying environmental triggers, you can prevent a meltdown by removing the trigger (e.g. cutting tags off of t-shirts) or teaching your child coping skills so they can calmly respond rather than melting down (e.g. taking 10 deep breaths). 

 

A “signal” is a behavior the person engages in before more serious behaviors start. Some common signals include:

  • Crying, whining, yelling
  • Stomping feet, pacing, falling to the ground, clenched fists, clenched jaw
  • Screaming, cursing, verbal threats (“I'm going to punch you”, “I'm going to break this”), threatening gestures
  • Increased breathing, red face, loud and rapid speech or sounds (if person does not communicate verbally)
  • Withdrawing, suddenly becoming quiet, zoning out, muttering quietly under their breath
  • Self-stimulatory behaviors may increase like rocking and hand-flapping
  • Self-injurious behaviors like hitting, biting, or headbanging
  • Running away or wandering off, also known as eloping
  • Pounding or banging on objects

 

Identifying your child’s signals will allow you to intervene early and before the situation escalates into a meltdown. Not all meltdowns have clear triggers or signals, but being able to predict and prepare for meltdowns, before they ever happen, can be very helpful to you and your child! 

 

Check out our guide on how to prevent and manage your child’s meltdowns.

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