When a Tantrum is really a Meltdown

When my eldest boy was about 2, we still lived in Scotland. Shopping is always difficult with a toddler, but it can be a challenge when they are on the Autism spectrum. Every time we tried to enter our local British Home Stores shop; he would be hysterical. It took us a while to join up the dots, we just assumed it was him fed up with shopping and having a tantrum.

No matter what we did, he would scream until we left that shop. It was only as we began to understand the dynamics of Autism that we realised this was no tantrum but a meltdown in response to the lighting used in the shop.

A meltdown is defined as an intense reaction to sensory overwhelm. When a child with autism is overwhelmed, he/she knows no other way to express it other than with a meltdown. This might involve emotional verbal outbursts such as screaming and crying or physical reactions like kicking, biting or hitting.

Now as a parent of a child or children on the spectrum you will be well used to Meltdowns, but when they occur, they can be a stressful and at times scary occurrence that drains not only your child but parents and siblings.

It's part of the Autism parenting journey and something you learn to live with because meltdowns, tantrums, and aggression are invariably part of raising a child on the spectrum.

While these can be difficult to manage at times, having the right strategies can significantly improve the ability of your child to regulate their emotions in the future reducing stress for them and your family.

Meltdown vs a temper tantrum

Although they can look very similar, meltdowns are different from temper tantrums. A temper tantrum is usually a child’s method for getting what he/she wants. A meltdown, however, has no purpose and is beyond a child’s control. To be more specific, a temper tantrum happens when a child is:

·         Frustrated with not getting what he/she wants

·         Not able to do what he/she wants

·         Not able to properly communicate

A child might stop a tantrum after the following responses:

·         Being comforted by a parent or caregiver

·         Being given what he/she wants (although not an ideal strategy)

·         Being ignored and giving up on his/her own

Youngsters who throw temper tantrums are aware and in control of their actions and can adjust the level of their tantrum based on the response they get from a parent or adult.

As parents we can use various behavioural strategies to manage tantrums.

Now Meltdowns on the other hand have entirely different causes. Because they are triggered by sensory overload, a child on the spectrum having a meltdown can have a few defining characteristics.

Autistic meltdown symptoms may:

·         Start with pre-meltdown signs called “rumblings” which can be verbal or physical behaviours that signal an imminent meltdown

·         Be preceded with stimming, which is self-stimulating behaviours, usually involving repetitive movements or sounds.

·         Be caused by overstimulation or an undesirable sensory input

·         Not be limited to young children and can also happen to teens and adults

·         Happen with or without an audience

·         Last longer than tantrums

Once you can tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, then you can apply the right strategies to deal with the situation.

In my next blog I want to look at these strategies we can all use to help with meltdowns and even stop them before they happen.