Autism meltdowns versus temper tantrums

Children with autism are more likely to have meltdowns than children who do not have autism. The severity of these meltdowns varies drastically from child to child. Some children have up to five meltdowns a day, while others have one or none. The occurrence of meltdowns in children with autism is linked to their difficulty to adapt to change and to multitask. They experience sensory overload and find it difficult to deal with their environment.

What is a temper tantrum?

Young children between the ages of 2 and 3 are just beginning to develop their communication skills. They are also at a stage where they want to do things for themselves and make their wants and needs known. However, at this young age, they have not yet developed the skills to communicate effectively, or to complete tasks on their own. This leads to frustration, which leads to a temper tantrum.

What is a meltdown?

A meltdown is an involuntary physiological reaction to being in an overwhelming situation without a means for escape.

A meltdown is therefore a response to an external stimulus overload that leads to an emotional explosion (or implosion). External stimuli are, for example, loud noises, lights, and crowded spaces. Think of it like a nuclear power plant when the fuel in the reactor core becomes so hot it melts and releases energy. The result is literally a meltdown.

Can you control a meltdown?

No, it is totally out of your control. The best you can do is ride it out. The person having the meltdown may self-harm or harm others. It is therefore important to keep yourself and the person having the meltdown safe. It will take some time to pass.

During a meltdown, the internal pressure builds to the point where it can cause a shutdown of thinking processes and language, or is released externally as an explosive reaction like anger, crying, yelling, or running away.

It is this kind of reaction that most people refer to when they talk about a meltdown.

What happens after a meltdown?

After the meltdown or shutdown has passed, the body enters a period of restoration as it starts to cool and reset itself. This can take up to 24 hours.

Identifying tantrums before they lead to meltdowns

We were fortunate that my in-laws were both teachers. They understood the stages of a child’s development and guided us in a way that proved invaluable in the coming years. My mother-in-law explained to us that when our son was frustrated, he was merely lacking the social and communication skills to tell us what was troubling him. He was not naughty, which we though was the case, he was frustrated. She offered him distractions in the form of his favourite toys or a snack, and sometimes just walked with him through the garden to calm him down. She kept inappropriate toys out of sight to prevent power struggles, and picked up on when he was tired and just needed a nap. We will always be grateful to our in-laws for teaching us these invaluable lessons and skills, without which we might never have realised what the cause of our son’s tantrums were.

More on temper tantrums and meltdowns next time…

Written by Elizabeth Tsikkos for Inspirare Academy

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