Temper Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Posted on November 21, 2016

This blog is the second in a support series for parents by Marci Lebowitz, occupational therapist and autism specialist. Find out more about how Marci supports autism parents and professionals at www.marcilebowitz.com.

Can you REALLY tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

One of the most widely discussed characteristics of autism is when your child becomes overwhelmed, inconsolable and totally out of control. For the unknowing, non-autistic onlooker, it can appear that your child behaves badly and is probably in need of real parenting!

How wrong they are!

We are becoming aware that behind the challenges of autism, many of these children are highly intelligent, are masters at using this intelligence to manipulate situations, and can use behavior to attempt to get their way.

However, could it be that not all episodes of screaming are the same? That they are not always trying to get their way? I think that there are two distinctions. The first are meltdowns that are caused by sensory overload, and the second is willful tantrums.

The examples below may help to illustrate this distinction even better.

Olivia was sitting at her little dining room table her eating snack. She wanted more, so she simply started to scream at the top of her lungs. Periodically she would turn around and check to see if her mother was watching. She threw her bowl and banged her hands on the table. When she took a break from that, she would check for her mother’s reaction, gauging to see if her mother was going to give her what she wanted without using her PECS.

One day, Olivia had not had enough sleep, she appeared to be getting sick, and she was not getting what she wanted. I guess you know these sorts of days very well and you know what follows. Olivia begins screaming at the top of her lungs and throwing things. This escalates. She has no regard for safety and complete disregard for her parent’s reaction. No connection. She is out of control, unsafe, inconsolable, and checked out.

Which do you think is a tantrum, and which is a meltdown?

This is the second in a series about how to understand and work with severely challenging autistic behaviors. This post will help you to distinguish the differences between tantrums and meltdowns.

Believe it or not, it really is possible to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown once you know what to look for!

Here’s how you can begin to distinguish the differences.

Temper tantrums
A temper tantrum is very straightforward: the child ddoes not get his or her own way and, as grandma would say, “pitches a fit.”

Qualities of temper tantrums:

• A child having a tantrum will look occasionally to see if his or her behavior is getting a reaction.

• A child in the middle of a tantrum will take precautions to be sure they won’t get hurt.

• A child who throws a tantrum will attempt to use the social situation to his or her benefit.

• When the situation is resolved, the tantrum will end as suddenly as it began.

• A tantrum will give you the feeling that the child is in control, although he would like you to think he is not.

• A tantrum is thrown to achieve a specific goal, and once the goal is met, things return to normal.

If you feel like you are being manipulated by a tantrum, you are! A tantrum is a power play by a person not mature enough to understand subtle politics. Hold your ground and remember who is in charge.

A temper tantrum in a non-autistic child is simpler to handle. Parents simply ignore the behavior and refuse to give the child what he is demanding. Tantrums usually result when a child makes a request to have or do something that the parent denies.

Upon hearing the parent’s “no,” the tantrum is used as a last-ditch effort.

A meltdown is a loss of control due to sensory overload. It can begin as a tantrum and then escalate into a meltdown very rapidly. The child needs you to recognize this behavior and rein him back in as he is unable to do so. A child with autism in the middle of a meltdown desperately needs help to gain control.

Qualities Of A Meltdown

• The child does not look at you, nor care, if those around are reacting to the behavior.

• The children do not consider their own safety.

• The child has no interest or involvement in the social situation.

• Meltdowns continue as though they are moving under their own power.

• A meltdown conveys the feeling that no one is in control.

• A meltdown can occur because a specific want has not been met, the children becomes over stimulated, goes into full-blown sensory overload and cannot calm themselves.

• Meltdowns go on for extended time periods unless the caregiver or the child themselves knows how to take themselves out of sensory overload.

In order to know how to manage both of these types of situation, the adults need to understand how to distinguish between a tantrum and a meltdown, to have effective behavior management tools to deal with the situation, and then additional skills and tools to help the autistic child gain sensory control, and to work during the meltdown to bring the child safely and calmly back to being in control once more.

In the next blog post in this series, we’ll be discussing tips to manage tantrums and meltdowns.

Please feel free to comment below how this information has helped you understand how to distinguish between a tantrum and a meltdown. I’d love to hear from you!

Marci has been an occupational therapist for 28 years and an autism specialist for over a decade. During her expansive career, she has worked in schools, private outpatient practices, hospitals, a prison medical facility, and skilled nursing facilities.

Known as “the Mary Poppins of Autism,” Marci has developed effective behavioral management systems, sensory calming strategies, and alternatives to physical restraints and seclusion.

Marci is a dynamic speaker and loves educating autism parents, extended families, and professionals about the underlying causes of challenging behaviors; distinguishing between tantrums, sensory overload, and meltdowns; and how to have fun with children with severe autism! Find out more about how Marci supports autism parents and professionals at www.marcilebowitz.com.

A MyAutismTeam Member said:

I have an 8 years old granddaughter. I was intrigued by the title "tantrum or meltdown". My daughter lives in NYC and has been dealing with a very… read more

posted about 1 year ago

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