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Autism Meltdown vs Tantrum—Understand the Differences

By Natalie Schad | 18 May, 2024
Abacus Therapies - Autism Meltdown vs Tantrum

When a child has an autism meltdown, to some, it may look like a typical temper tantrum. However, even though autism meltdowns and temper tantrums share some characteristics, they are not the same.

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between autism meltdown vs tantrum, and we’ll share some helpful tips on preventing and handling autism meltdowns successfully.

What Is a Temper Tantrum?

Most parents are familiar with temper tantrums —emotional outbursts that happen when a child doesn’t get what they want, most often seen near toy stores or in candy aisles. They often include screaming, kicking, and crying. Moreover, a child being hungry or fatigued may increase the chance and intensity of temper tantrums. 

What Is an Autism Meltdown?

When talking about autism tantrums, the symptoms are often very similar to those of regular tantrums but more intense. 

They may start more subtly—your child may try to cover their eyes or ears, and you may notice some stimming, which is an attempt to self-soothe and can include rocking, pacing, humming, or finger flicking. 

If the cause of the discomfort doesn’t cease, the autism tantrum may progress to kicking, biting, self-injury, harming others, and more intense screaming. 

Autism Meltdown vs Tantrum: Main Differences

While they may seem similar at first glance, there are some notable differences between a regular tantrum and an autism one. Factors you should be aware of include:

  1. The causes of autism tantrum
  2. The possible reactions
  3. Age limitations
  4. The need for audience
  5. Reward mechanism

1. The causes of autism tantrum

The main difference between a tantrum and autism meltdown is the cause of it. If you see an autistic child having a tantrum, it’s not because they are frustrated from not being able to do or get what they want—it’s because they are overstimulated or overwhelmed. This may happen due to emotional, sensory, or information overload, and it can also be the result of too many unpredictable details around them. 

So, unlike the regular tantrum that is always goal-oriented, an autism meltdown is caused by extreme discomfort. It’s important to keep in mind that this discomfort may not seem like a big deal, but you should never ignore your autistic child if they show or tell you they aren’t comfortable. 

2. The possible reactions

Unlike regular tantrums that are always explosive, autism meltdowns can also be calm and more focused on withdrawing. Some autistic kids may run away and hide, refuse to interact, or zone out completely. Because these signs are so unusual, they may go unnoticed if you aren’t aware of them.

3. Age limitations

While regular tantrums are almost exclusively seen in young children, autism meltdowns are not limited to any age since you can’t grow out of autism. Older kids, teenagers, and adults with autism can all experience tantrums. Even those who have a high-functioning type of autism may have meltdowns when overwhelmed.

4. The need for audience

Although crowds can trigger autism meltdowns, they don’t generally require the attention of other people. The purpose of the tantrum in autism is not to get a reaction out of you—autism meltdowns can happen even when your child is alone.

Regular tantrums, on the other hand, do require an audience and can be affected by that audience. Removing the child from the situation, ignoring them, or giving them incentives to calm down (either a reward or a promise of a reward) can often be enough to stop the tantrum.

5. Reward mechanism

When a child is having a regular temper tantrum, the last thing you want to do is give them what they want. While giving in may stop the tantrum, it would encourage the child to repeat that behavior whenever they want something.

However, if you reward them after they calm down, and you do so every time they stay calm in a situation that may be triggering, this incentive may prevent future tantrums and shape their behavior overall. 

On the other hand, a child with an autism tantrum usually cannot be calmed by rewards. Rewards and discipline, in general, are unlikely to affect autism meltdowns. This is due to the causes — there is no desire involved. Instead, there’s only the brain’s inability to comfortably process sensory overload. 

That being said, there are things that can be done, which will be covered in the following sections.

How to Prevent Severe Autism Meltdown

Autism tantrums can often be prevented by recognizing early warning signs and triggers. Some common triggers include:

  • Bright or fluorescent lights
  • Loud music
  • Crowded places
  • Too much physical contact
  • Itchy tags on clothing or itchy clothes in general
  • Overly saturated colors
  • Stress and changes in plans

Once you know your child’s triggers, you can be prepared to counter them in time. For example, if your child is triggered by loud sounds, you can provide them with noise-canceling headphones when in loud crowds. If they don’t like bright lights, you can get them sunglasses.

Similarly, you should pay attention to warning signs, like stimming behavior and anxiety. When it comes to autism tantrums, a 2 year old may not be able to verbalize how they feel, but older kids may tell you when they are becoming overwhelmed. 

How to Calm Down an Autism Tantrum

While the traditional methods of rewarding may not work, there are other approaches you can try. 

  • The most important thing to do is stay calm. Remember that every autistic child is unique, and what works for one may not work for the other — but you know yours best.
  • What you need to do is provide safety and comfort, whether that means playing calming music, dimming the lights, giving them a tight hug or a massage, or something else. 
  • Make sure to remove any items that could be used for self-harming or harming others. 
  • Take them to a quieter place if needed. 
  • Don’t try to discipline them or reason with them — just try to understand them.

Some symptoms of autism tantrum can be scary and even dangerous, but if you stay calm and collected, you’re more likely to handle it successfully. 

There are also some therapeutic strategies that may help in the long run too, like functional communication training and reinforcement strategies

Conclusion

While normal tantrums can be considered a sign of “naughty behavior”, autism meltdowns are honest signs of discomfort that you should never ignore or try to stop with discipline or scolding. Autistic kids don’t have control over the meltdowns, so the best thing to do is understand, spread awareness, and provide comfort, trust, and safety.

FAQs

Is screaming a sign of autism in toddlers?

Screaming alone does not imply that the child has autism. For younger kids, screaming is just another way to express themselves, especially when they are frustrated or angry.

Excessive or unusual screaming behavior can be a sign of autism, but it would have to be accompanied by some other common symptoms, like repetitive behaviors, communication difficulties, and sensory sensitivities. 

Is a tantrum a sign of autism?

No, a tantrum itself is not a sign of autism. Most young kids have tantrums when they are angry, hungry, tired, or unable to express their wishes verbally.

Just like screaming, frequent or intense tantrums can be a part of ASD, but they would also need to be accompanied by other behavioral and developmental symptoms.

How to tell the difference between a tantrum and a sensory meltdown?

Differentiating between autism tantrums vs normal tantrums can be challenging as they do share some similarities. However, there are a few things that may help you:

  • Triggers—While regular tantrums are triggered by specific events, autism meltdowns are triggered by sensory overload. 
  • Duration—Regular tantrums usually last until the situation changes in some way, while autism tantrums may not resolve quickly even if the stimuli causing the discomfort are removed.
  • Comfort—During an autism meltdown, trying to comfort your child could make them even more agitated. 
  • Self-Injury—While regular tantrums can be loud and aggressive, they rarely lead to self-injury. Kids with autism have less control over this type of tantrum, and thus, may unintentionally hurt themselves or others. 

At the end of the day, every child is unique, and it may be difficult to recognize whether your child is having a normal tantrum or autism meltdown—especially if you have a young autistic child. If you’re still unsure how to recognize and approach an autism meltdown, don’t hesitate to consult professionals, like BCBAs and RBTs at Abacus Therapies, who’ll be happy to answer all your questions.