Meltdown vs. Tantrum

Cameron is usually a very happy little boy, but he has had his share of meltdowns and tantrums. I can tell the difference between his meltdowns and a regular tantrum for a number of reasons. 

A temper tantrum and a meltdown are similar in that they may be triggered by the same source. The child may be frustrated because he/she is not getting their way. They may act out in ways that are aggressive.

When the child is throwing a tantrum, they may look at the parent from time to time to see if they are getting the desired reaction. The child may throw themselves around, but will not do anything to intentionally hurt themselves. They may, for instance, avoid running into furniture as they thrash about. 

He/she may use the social dynamics of the moment to their advantage. An example would be if they ask for a toy or candy at the store and are denied. They may scream and throw themselves around, assuming that they will get what they want, simply because their parents don’t want to cause a scene. 

A tantrum may end quickly once the child’s goal has been achieved. The tears can be turned off as quickly as they came on.

A meltdown can be manipulative too, but the difference lies in the fact that it can soon become overwhelming. The child can quickly lose control of himself and his behavior. If the parent does not attempt to take control of the situation in the beginning of the meltdown, the situation can get out of hand before the parent quite knows what is happening. The easiest way to handle the situation is to try to avoid things that trigger a meltdown. If one occurs, the parent should make sure that nothing is nearby that the child could potentially hurt themselves on.

When the child is having a meltdown, they have no consideration for their own safety. They can hurt themselves without meaning to, simply because they are caught up in the moment and the emotions. So caught up are they in those emotions that they do not even look around to see who is watching or what their reaction is. The social situation around them is of no interest to them.

If the tantrum gives the impression that the child is controlling the situation, the meltdown leaves one feeling that all control is gone. No one is controlling this situation.

A  meltdown can be exhausting for both the parents and the child. When the Autistic child has gone into a full-blown meltdown that has not been stopped in time, it takes a lot out of them. They may spend some time just sitting quietly and staring off into space or even take a nap afterward.

One of Cameron’s most memorable meltdowns occurred because of an outfit that I bought him for one of his school’s programs. It was around Easter time, so most of the nice clothes in the store were pastel colors and included button down shirts and ties.

I chose an outfit that was attractive, without being too “girly.” I had no idea how he would react to the clothes when he saw them, but I definitely did not anticipate a huge meltdown. I thought that he might cry and throw a bit of a fit, but that I might be able to get him to wear the clothes anyway.

My thinking could not have been more wrong. It turned into a big disaster.

I didn’t get within 3 feet of him before he started screeching. “No! No!” He screamed. “I don’t want those clothes!” 

I tried to calm him. I tried to persuade him. Nothing worked. He only got more out of control.

The fit quickly escalated, to the point where I wondered who this monster child was. He threw himself away from me, tossing himself around the room like he was a rag doll. 

The volume of his screeching made my ear drums vibrate. I could not even hear myself speak.

He cried and screamed like I was attempting to kill him. He was fully into a freak out. 

Nothing I did would make him stop. I eventually had to simply take the clothes and walk away from him.

He eventually came down from it and returned to normal. He stayed that way as long as I kept the clothes away from him.

He hated those clothes, whether for the color, style, or even the sound they made, I do not know. We did get him to the program that night. He wasn’t wearing the clothes I had intended for him, but he wasn’t throwing a fit or making anyone else miserable either.




Posted on May 30, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thank you for your post. It helped me get an additional idea. An autistic child may throw tantrum or behave aggressively when he is disappointed or frustrated as other children do. But he is not doing it intentionally, because as an autistic child, he is unable to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings. Punishment must fit the crime. Whenever possible, the only punishment should be experiencing the natural and logical consequences of an undesirable action. If an undesirable behavior happens repeatedly, and neither incentives nor disincentives seem to curb it, you should look closer for hidden causes. Behavior analysis techniques can be very useful in this regard.

    • Actually, an Autistic child, depending upon where they are on the Spectrum, understands that others have feelings. They do have empathy toward others, in spited of what popular media tells us.
      The difference is, they understand the CLEAR feelings. They recognize anger, sadness, and joy. They may not always understand the depth of these feelings or what brought them on, though.
      Overall, an Autistic child becomes very caught up in the overwhelming feelings that they are experiencing at that time, leaving them little room to consider the feelings of others at that time. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s simply that they are overcome.

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