How Are Autistic Meltdowns Different From Ordinary Temper Tantrums?

There's a good reason why they're called meltdowns!

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The word "meltdown" was originally coined to describe what happens when, after a series of incidents and warnings, the core of a nuclear reactor is exposed to the air. A major crisis occurs, and the possible outcomes include lethal exposure to radioactivity or a massive explosion.

Some parents use the term to refer to their children's temper tantrums. In most cases, parents simply mean "My little one is overtired, and he is unable to handle the emotional stress, so it's coming out in howls and tears. He'll be fine after a nap."  Alternatively, they may mean "My child wants what he wants when he wants it, and thinks that I'll cave in if he throws a tantrum or cries."

Autistic meltdowns are quite different.

How Is an Autistic Meltdown Different from an Ordinary Tantrum?

When parents of children with autism describe their child as melting down, they mean something a little different from the norm: something a little closer to the original meaning of the word. An autistic meltdown is bigger, more emotional, longer lasting, and more difficult to manage than those of average children. What's more, autistic meltdowns specific qualities that make it a little different from the usual "terrible twos" event.  Specifically:

  • Autistic meltdowns are not limited to young children on the spectrum. Tweens, teens, and even adults with autism may have meltdowns and, surprisingly, they may occur even among individuals with high functioning forms of autism.
  • Autistic meltdowns generally begin with warning signals called "rumblings." Rumblings are outward signs of distress that can be quite obvious or somewhat subtle. Rumblings might start with a verbal plea to "go now," or visually obvious signs of distress such as hands over the ears.
  • Rumblings may include or progress to "stims" (self-stimulatory behaviors, such as rocking, pacing, or finger flicking) or other signs of anxiety.  Stims are self-calming techniques used by people with autism to help regulate anxiety or sensory input.  If you see a person with autism rocking back and forth, pacing, or otherwise "stimming," there's a good chance that he or she is feeling stressed (though it's also possible that he or she is just excited).
  • Typical tantrums are often manipulative: a child learns that he will get what he wants if he cries or screams—and so he cries and screams. Autistic tantrums are not manipulative: they are genuine cries of distress.

    How Autistic Symptoms Relate to Meltdowns

    If "rumblings" are warning signals, then bolting or intense stimming can be seen as the emergency siren. 

    Bolting, which is more common among very young children or older people with severe autism, means running away.  A person with autism, faced with overwhelming sensory input, anxiety, or stress, may just run from the room.  While this is a great coping mechanism, it can become very dangerous when the person doing the bolting is unaware of issues such as oncoming traffic.

    Intense stimming, such as high energy rocking, slamming the hand into the forehead, or other obvious signs of agitation, mean a meltdown is imminent. 

    It's important to be aware that rumblings are a response to stress and/or sensory overload and NOT a form of manipulation.  While a typical child might tantrum in order to embarrass or upset a parent (with the goal of getting their own way), children with autism rarely have the "mind-reading" tools to intentionally manipulate another person's emotions.

    Managing Autistic Meltdowns

    When a child (or adult) with autism has gotten to the rumbling stage, it may be possible to intervene before a meltdown begins.  For example, a child who is overwhelmed by the noise and light at a mall may calm down quickly when taken outside.  A child who is anxious about a social situation may be just fine if he's provided with clear direction and support. 

    If intervention doesn't occur or doesn't solve the problem, a meltdown is inevitable. 

    While some people with autism merely yell or stamp, many really do become overwhelmed by their own emotions. Bolting, hitting, self-abuse, crying, and screaming are all possibilities. These can be particularly frightening and even dangerous when the autistic individual is physically large.

    When a full meltdown is in progress, it can be hard to manage.  Safety, both for the person with autism and for others in the area, is most important. It may be necessary to move to a quiet room (sometimes this may require more than one person to avoid injury) until the meltdown is over.

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    Article Sources
    • Sources:
    • Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Mood instability and meltdowns. Website. December 16, 2015. https://iancommunity.org/cs/challenging_behavior/mood_instability_and_meltdown
    • Ryan, Sara. ‘Meltdowns’, surveillance and managing emotions; going out with children with autism. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  July 2013, Volume 52, Issue 7, Pages 679–688.