Defying The Spectrum

Managing Meltdowns – Autism Awareness 2016 Day 23/30

Meltdown or Tantrum?


Whereas a tantrum is an attempt to negotiate or manipulate a desired outcome, a meltdown is the reaction to stress-related factors which push the child beyond the point of self-regulation.


Meltdowns differ from a tantrum because instead of being a reaction to not getting something they want, the child’s meltdown is an effect of stressors the child has experienced that push the child beyond the point of any coping ability.



If you are the parent of a special needs child, you may be very familiar with meltdowns. Children who struggle with verbal communication, experience sensory issues, or can’t deal with any type of transition will often have meltdown episodes. Most public settings, for us it was the grocery store, can trigger a meltdown response. Many times, this behavior is interpreted by others as a tantrum.


This event is what would be considered as a meltdown by professionals and parents dealing with children of special needs. And unfortunately, it is all too common, especially so, for children diagnosed along the Autism Spectrum.


The meltdown triggers are different for each child. It could be the build up of sensory-related events such as noise, bright lights, anxiety, amount of and difficulty level of work, issues with poor communication between peers and/or educators/therapists and more. Each child has a different set of needs and issues, emotionally and physically.


Autism Speaks has some great advice and a toolkit you can download on managing meltdowns.


Steps you can take to ease the situation:
* Scan the area around the child for sights and sounds that may have contributed to the meltdown. Many individuals affected by autism are easily overwhelmed by sensory input. Is there an alarm that can be silenced? A flashing display that can be temporarily turned off?

* If you see self-injury behaviors such as head banging, offer the family a blanket or other soft material to cushion the impact and reduce injury. For more information, see “What Might I Need to Know about Managing a Crisis Situation,” in the Autism Speaks Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit.

* Refrain from giving the family advice. Chances are good that this isn’t the first meltdown they’ve handled.

How long the meltdown lasts can vary widely. Neither you nor the family will have ultimate control of when it ends. Keeping calm and helping others keep calm is the best support. Your offer of help, combined with your patience and understanding, will likely be just what the caregivers need.



I have created these Autism Information cards. Using an information card when in the throws of a tantrum in public can be useful when you don’t have the ability to communicate with others around you, and frees you up to care for your child.


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