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.