by Judy Endow

Most young children have tantrums. Typically as they master new skills and become more savvy with expanded communication abilities the tantrums dwindle away. Autistic children have meltdowns and these meltdowns can happen across the life span. For some autistics they never totally disappear. To the casual onlooker an autistic meltdown and a temper tantrum may appear to be the same behavior. It is not. Here are some things to consider when trying to sort out whether the behavior is a temper tantrum or an autistic meltdown. The strategies helpful for tantrums versus meltdowns are different so it becomes important to understand what you are dealing with to effectively impact the situation.

Goal Driven Tantrum Versus Response to Overwhelm Meltdown

Tantrums in young children typically occur when the youngster cannot have something he wants or cannot do something he wishes to do. A tantrum is goal driven behavior designed to persuade the adult in charge to give in to the desires of the youngster.

Autistic meltdowns typically occur as a response to being overwhelmed. Sensory overload is one way being overwhelmed occurs, but becoming overwhelmed can happen in many other sorts of situations. Because the processing of the autistic brain often is not in sync with real time, anything from too many choices to not being able to pull up solutions to an in-the-now problem to an intense emotion that is stuck rather than dissipating over time can be triggers for a meltdown.


Let’s use sensory input as an example. Imagine a glass that is filling with water. The glass is like the autistic person and the water is like the sensory input. As the sensory input accumulates the glass fills. When the glass is full it spills over. The spilling over is the meltdown. There are many ways to prevent meltdowns – to prevent the glass from filling up, but once a meltdown has started there isn’t a way to make it stop at wish – we cannot undo the overflow once there is too much water for the glass. Just as the water must overflow the glass when there isn’t enough room for it in the glass, so must so must energy be spent or worked off to reduce the overwhelm so life can again becomes manageable.


Behavior During the Tantrum Versus Behavior During the Meltdown


While tantrums are a goal driven choice a toddler makes, autistic meltdowns are not goal driven. This plays out with some noticeable differences. For example, a toddler engaged in a temper tantrum will only display the behavior if someone is near enough to see or hear the behavior. If there is no audience the behavior will stop. In fact, the toddler will often pause the behavior, checking to make sure the parent is still there, and then resume the temper tantrum behavior.

Autistic meltdowns will occur with or without an audience. The audience is largely immaterial. In fact, if the adult in charge walks away during a meltdown the meltdown will continue until the energy is spent. The individual engaged in a meltdown does not stop to check for an audience.

Because the autistic meltdown is the body’s attempt to gain equilibrium by expending energy safety concerns often loom large. In fact, safety becomes the focus of attention during the autistic meltdown. The goal for the support person at the height of a meltdown is to ensure safety, knowing the meltdown will continue until the energy is spent. There is no stopping a meltdown in progress.

Ending the Tantrum Versus Ending the Meltdown

All parents learn the quickest way to end a toddler’s tantrum is to give in to the demands. Most of us have had the experience of immediately averting the tantrum in the grocery store by putting our youngster’s item of choice in our shopping cart! When a tantrum occurs in the home we can end it by simply removing ourselves from the immediate vicinity or in some other way ignoring the behavior. As a parent or adult in charge we have the power to stop the tantrum by our own behavior. Our choice in making it stop is either to give in to the demands or withdraw our attention from the tantrum behavior.

A meltdown can occur across the lifespan and will not stop until the energy is spent. In fact, giving an individual a favored item or promising a special privilege will not stop a meltdown once it has begun. Likewise, withdrawing your attention will not stop the meltdown. In fact, some individuals experiencing meltdowns may not be able to calm themselves even after the meltdown energy is spent. They may need assistance to calm. This is where a learned calming routine comes in handy. Many benefit from a routine for re-engagement in every day life – a way to get back on track after a meltdown.

Preventing the Tantrum Versus Preventing the Meltdown

Even though the tantrum may be over it is remembered and the experience called up the next time the youngster wants something he cannot have. As parents we have all experienced having to deal with the next bigger and better tantrum after having given in to a previous tantrum! This is because the tantrum is goal driven willful behavior. Because it is willful behavior we can shape it by rewarding desired behavior while ignoring undesired tantrum behavior.

Meltdown behavior is not impacted by reward systems or by shaping efforts because it is not willful, goal driven behavior. However, meltdown behavior, because it is escalating behavior with beginning, middle and end stages, can be mapped out. This is important because different supports are effective at the different stages of escalation to enable individuals to manage their overwhelmed experiences while in the initial stages. Meltdown behavior can be effectively worked with by preventing the escalation (Endow, 2009).



Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With ASD. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

About the Author:

Judy Endow, MSW is an author, artist, and international speaker on a variety of autism-related topics. The award winning Paper Words, Discovering and Living with My Autism ,  Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic AdultPaper Words, and many other wonderful books can be found on her website


  1. […] And there’s the sensory overload. I’m okay by myself or in meetings where only one person talks at a time, but then there are office parties, social offsites, exercises where the room splits into groups such that members of each group converse among themselves, and so on. Since these sorts of activities aren’t part of the weekday routine, I’m already starting off on the wrong foot… but then, I’m supposed to interact with a group of people I don’t know particularly well, in a room filled with unrelated conversations. I’m able to tune out the irrelevant conversations… mostly… but I’m still fundamentally aware of them on a subconscious level, especially if they’re emotionally charged. By the end of a day of this, all I want to do is go home, curl up, and cry myself to sleep out of sheer overwhelming stress. […]

  2. Meltdowns vs. Tantrums | Sophias Blog September 2, 2018 at 3:21 am - Reply

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  5. Russ May 5, 2016 at 9:41 pm - Reply

    Great article about the difference between autistic meltdown and temper tantrum.

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  7. Michael DW February 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    “In fact, giving an individual a favored item or promising a special privilege will not stop a meltdown once it has begun. ”

    With some individuals giving an individual a favored item may help especially if the item is also the individual’s favored stim item
    I know this to be true, because throughout my life ( 10 – now ) the only way to stop my meltdowns has been to stop the sensory overload, and get me stimming.

  8. Autistic Meltdown or Temper Tantrum October 15, 2015 at 1:53 pm - Reply

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  9. […] between a temper tantrum and an autistic meltdown. Here's a link to an interesting article: Autistic Meltdown or Temper Tantrum? by Judy Endow,MSW Let me quote part of it: Meltdown behavior is not impacted by reward systems or by shaping […]

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