How Autistic Meltdowns Differ From Ordinary Temper Tantrums

Many parents of typical children refer to their child's tantrums as "meltdowns." The word "meltdown," of course, comes from the catastrophic, dangerous exposure of radioactive material in a nuclear power plant—and few typical temper tantrums rise to that level of intensity.

Autistic meltdowns, however, come closer to the euphemistic meaning of the term. In addition, autistic meltdowns have specific qualities that make them different from the average temper tantrum.

3 year old crying laying on the floor
Image taken by Mayte Torres / Getty Images

Qualities of an Autistic Meltdown

An autistic meltdown is bigger, more emotional, longer-lasting, and more difficult to manage than the average temper tantrum. They are also qualitatively different from the average tantrum because they generally occur for different reasons, are surprisingly predictable, and have different outcomes in children with autism.

Specifically, autistic meltdowns are characterized by the following features:

  • Meltdowns are not limited to children. Autistic meltdowns are not limited to young children on the spectrum. Adolescents, teens, and even adults with autism may have meltdowns and, surprisingly, they may occur even among individuals with high functioning forms of autism.
  • Meltdowns are preceded by signs of distress. Autistic meltdowns generally begin with warning signals called "rumblings." Rumblings are outward signs of distress that can either be obvious or subtle. Rumblings might start with a verbal plea to "go now" or visually obvious signs of distress such as hands over the ears.
  • Meltdowns may involve intense stimming: 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 or pacing there's a good chance that they are feeling stressed (or, alternately, feeling excited).
  • Meltdowns do not have a purpose. Typical tantrums are often manipulative in which a child learns that they can get what they want if they cry or scream. By contrast, autistic tantrums are not manipulative: they are genuine cries of distress.

How Autistic Symptoms Relate to Meltdowns

If rumblings are warning signals of an autistic meltdown, then intense stimming or another behavioral response known as "bolting" can be seen as emergency signs.

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

Bolting is a term used to describe running away and is more common among very young children or older people with severe autism. A person with autism, faced with overwhelming sensory input, anxiety, or stress, may simply run from the room to escape the stimulus. While this is a great coping mechanism, bolting can become dangerous when the child or adult is unaware of issues such as oncoming traffic.

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 throw a tantrum to embarrass or upset a parent (and get 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 they are provided with clear direction and support.

If an intervention doesn't occur or doesn't solve the problem, a meltdown is almost 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 others in the area, is of the utmost importance. It may be necessary to move the individual to a quiet room until the meltdown is over. Sometimes, this may require more than one person to avoid injury.

Therapeutic strategies including functional behavioral assessment, reinforcement strategies, and functional communication training can help reduce the frequency and intensity of meltdowns and other aggressive behavior in people with autism.

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