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Seven Differences Between Tantrums vs Autism Meltdowns

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Seven Differences Between Tantrums vs Autism Meltdowns

To most people looking from the outside, the differences between tantrums vs meltdowns can appear almost indistinguishable if you don't know what to look for - after all, both autistic meltdowns and temper tantrums can incorporate screaming, crying and kicking. However, autistic meltdowns do not always look like this, and their root cause is fundamentally different from a tantrum. To help those who suffer from sensory meltdowns, it's essential to be able to differentiate tantrums vs meltdowns. 

In this post, we're going to discuss seven differences between autism meltdowns vs tantrums, some signs that a meltdown is occurring or impending, and some strategies to help someone who is having a meltdown.

What Is a Meltdown? 

An autistic meltdown, also known as a sensory meltdown, occurs when somebody is completely overwhelmed by their surroundings, and their brain struggles to process the volume of information that it's receiving. Consequently, the individual can temporarily lose control and react in extreme ways (often either explosively or by shutting down). 

All autistic people are different, and the autistic experience is even different between boys and girls. Individuals may be triggered by different things, react differently and need different strategies to calm down and recover. 

7 Differences Between Tantrums vs Autism Meltdowns

The key difference between a tantrum vs a meltdown is that a tantrum is a choice, aimed at reaching a goal, and can be stopped, while a meltdown is an involuntary response to a stimulus. 

Autistic children can experience both tantrums and meltdowns, so it's essential to understand their causes and symptoms. For other signs of autism in children, check out our blog post.

  1. Causes

In both meltdowns and tantrums, the caregiver should pay attention to what might have caused it and why the child might be reacting the way they are. 

Tantrums are most often caused by frustration from a child not being able or allowed to do something. Tantrums are not usually a result of sensory overload, and they can be worsened by tiredness or hunger. 

When it comes to autism meltdowns, various environmental factors can affect different people. Remember that the trigger may not seem like a big deal to a neurotypical person or even to another autistic person, so it's important not to dismiss an autistic person if they say they are uncomfortable.

Some common triggers include:

Sometimes, too much unpredictability or change in routine can trigger a meltdown. 

  1. Age

A sensory meltdown can occur at any point across an individual's lifetime. However, autism meltdowns can feel worse for children because they are less likely to understand what is happening or be able to remove themselves from a situation. Adults with autism may have learned masking techniques to disguise meltdowns. 

However, an adult is much less likely to have a tantrum than a child. Most children progress beyond tantrums as a way of communicating when they are very young, as they become more capable of voicing their displeasure and have more agency.

  1. Rewards

If an individual is experiencing an autism meltdown, their reaction or future reactions cannot be shaped by rewards. Providing them with incentives, rewards, or punishment cannot stop them from having an autism meltdown; it won't influence their brain's ability to process an overload of information.

Unlike autism meltdowns, tantrums can be, and often are, shaped by rewards. If a child is rewarded for good behaviour or is disciplined for bad behaviour, the incentive can stop a current tantrum or prevent future ones. 

  1. Audience

Although busy, public environments can trigger sensory meltdowns, they do not always require an audience, and the individual is not trying to get a reaction out of someone else. Autism meltdowns can even happen when the individual is alone, as they can be triggered by unexpected changes in plans or feeling overly stressed.

However, tantrums require an audience and can be stopped by other people's actions. When a child is having a temper tantrum, they can usually be calmed down by a parent removing them from the situation, ignoring them, giving them what they want, or providing incentives to calm down.

  1. 'Naughty Behaviour'

One of the most important differences between autism meltdowns and tantrums is that autism meltdowns should not be considered 'naughty behaviour'. 

An autistic person cannot help experiencing intense sensory overload, and their reactions are due to a lack of control. Even if a sensory meltdown is explosive and aggressive, scolding the individual for this behaviour in the moment can make the situation worse. It might make them feel embarrassed, fearful or resentful. A meltdown is a vulnerable time for an autistic person, particularly autistic children, so it's important that they feel safe and can trust whoever may be caring for them.

Tantrums, however, occur when a child loses their temper or something is happening that doesn't go their way. They want to draw attention and know which behaviours will do that. When typical tantrum behaviours like screaming and crying stop working, they may resort to other naughty behaviour to elicit more extreme reactions, like drawing on the walls, throwing things or hurting others. 

  1. Explosive vs Withdrawal

Two types of reaction are typical of autism meltdowns – an explosive reaction or a withdrawal. Explosive reactions may involve screaming, shouting, aggressive behaviour or crying. On the other hand, less explosive reactions may include refusing to communicate or interact, withdrawing themselves or shutting down. Withdrawal behaviours can be discreet and sometimes go unnoticed, so it's critical to be aware of this reaction.

When it comes to tantrums, children usually react in an explosive way that can appear similar to an explosive autism meltdown. However, unlike sensory meltdowns, tantrums are not typically characterised by withdrawal behaviours.

  1. Physical Harm

Sometimes, individuals may physically harm themselves while having an autism meltdown. The sufferer is completely overwhelmed; they can lose control and harm themselves or others without being able to register what they're doing. For example, they may fall to the floor, hit themselves (a form of harmful stimming) or throw things around the room.

However, a child having a tantrum is unlikely to harm themselves physically. Although they may lash out and hit things, and may injure themselves by accident, more often than not, they will purposely react with a lack of real force.

Signs of an Autistic Meltdown

When an autistic individual can feel themselves becoming overloaded, and a meltdown is building up, they might express their discomfort in non-verbal ways. This might look like:

  • Pacing the room
  • Rocking back or forth
  • Asking repetitive questions for reassurance
  • Asking to leave
  • Finger flicking
  • Bolting away from the situation

It's also important to be aware of your situation. If you know that an autistic person is going into a potentially triggering environment, even if it can't be avoided, you should be prepared for a potential meltdown.

Autism Meltdown Coping Strategies

If your child, or someone else you know, is suffering from a sensory meltdown, you should be aware of the different techniques and tools that can reduce sensory overload and help contain the situation. Remember that people react differently to different support methods, so try to establish what works best for the individual.

  • Stay calm and ask them if they are okay or need anything. Reassure them that everything will be okay.
  • Identify what might have triggered the meltdown and, where possible, either remove the person from the trigger or the trigger from the person. Note their pattern of behaviour to avoid or anticipate potentially triggering environments.
  • If they aren't triggered by physical contact, offer to place a hand on their shoulder or hug them – deep pressure therapy can help with meltdowns, but only from the right source.
  • Use sensory aids for autism to help them calm down:

Understanding the differences between autism meltdowns vs tantrums is extremely important so that autistic people can get the effective help that they need. Our collection of sensory equipment offers a range of benefits for those who experience sensory overload.

If you need further information on sensory rooms and sensory products, please contact our specialist team at Experia who will be happy to help you with any questions. We also offer a free sensory room design to help you plan out a sensory space.