What Is The Difference Between Meltdown And Tantrums
Both meltdowns and tantrums can show aggression during the process but for two different reasons. Understanding the difference between the two will help us identify the correct approach to calm the child down. Meltdowns are emotional outbursts of people with Autism as a reaction when overwhelmed with a particular sensory stimulus without any goal at the end. Whereas, tantrums are purpose-driven, trying to get the attention of an audience or a specific person to give them what they want. Tantrums are often younger childrens manipulative ways to get what they want. Whereas, while meltdowns are outlets of sensory overwhelm regardless of age. It can happen not just in young kids but also teens and adults.
Whats The Difference Between A Meltdown And A Tantrum
A good place to start is by understanding the difference between a sensory meltdown and a tantrum. The two are easily confused which is why many dismiss meltdowns as nothing more than a badly behaved childs cry for attention. This couldnt be further from the truth.
Tantrums are behavioural outbursts which are a deliberate attempt to get something. A child could have a tantrum for many different reasons. They could, for example, want their parents attention or perhaps they want their parents to buy a specific toy. Unlike meltdowns, a child having a tantrum is in control of their behavior, and will most likely stop acting out when they get what they want. Tantrums and meltdowns are very different and cannot be handled in the same way. By simply dismissing a meltdown as a petulant child acting out, you can cause severe harm to a child with special needs.
We put together some tips which may help you calm your special child during these trying times. But remember, what calms one child with special needs may not work for another. The important thing is to be understanding, patient and loving. That is after all what a child needs most during a sensory meltdown.
Causes Of Autism Challenging Behaviors Or Meltdowns
While what causes challenging behaviors in children with autism varies from one wonderfully unique child to the next, you may be able to narrow down what triggers your individual child. Here are some of the most common causes of autistic meltdowns:
Children with autism often have sensory differences compared to neurotypical children. Some may have overly-sensitive senses, while others may be under-sensitive in certain areas. Or, perhaps they have a little of both. Sensory overload can lead to autism meltdowns when there is too much stimulation for an individual to handle.
For example, if your child with autism is extremely sensitive to sound, they may become over-stimulated in a loud, noisy place leading to panic, overwhelm, and an autistic meltdown.
Change in routine
Sticking to a predictable, structured routine is typically very important to children with autism. But sometimes, the routine has to go out the window unexpectedly. And that can very easily lead to challenging behavior.
Many children with autism find it challenging to express their overwhelming and distressing feelings to caregivers. Sometimes they have trouble understanding their own feelings of discomfort. So when children with autism become overwhelmed and anxious, their lack of innate self-calming abilities often leads to a buildup of emotions. And that leads to autism meltdowns.
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Causes Of Anxiety And Meltdowns
Unlike their typical peers, few autistic children “throw fits” in order to garner more attention or to get a desired outcome . In most cases, autistic children react to physical or emotional stress without any particular agenda they are simply expressing feelings of excitement, frustration, or anxiety or responding to sensory assaults.
The reality is that children with autism, in general, may have less control over their emotions than their typical peers as a result, emotional explosions are more common.
It’s not always easy for a neurotypical parent to predict or even recognize situations likely to upset a child with autism. Ordinary changes in a daily routine such as a detour on the way to school can be terribly upsetting to some autistic children .
Odors such as the smell of fresh paint can be a sensory assault. Even the fluorescent lights at the grocery store can be overwhelming to certain individuals.
At the same time, however, any individual child may react differently to the same situation from day to day. An overwhelming stressor on Tuesday can be experienced as background noise on Thursday.
In general, it’s possible to predict at least some stressors and minimize them. For example:
- Very loud noises such as the sound of fireworks are easy to predict and avoid or minimize.
- Major changes in routine can be predicted, discussed, practiced, and planned for,
- Unavoidable noise and smells can be managed and planned for in advance.
Recognizing Challenging Behaviors And Meltdowns In Children With Autism
To reduce the occurrence of autistic meltdowns, note what events, places, activities, and the surrounding where meltdowns typically occur with your child. When you arm yourself with that knowledge, you can do your best to try to avoid them.
Get to know your childs rumble stage, which includes warning signs of distress that your child may be overwhelmed and anxious, eventually leading to challenging behaviors. Some of these warning signs may include:
- Screaming loudly
- Breaking things
While autistic meltdowns may look like a child having a temper tantrum, they are much different. Unlike a neurotypical child doing any of the above, children with autism dont have meltdowns with intention or purpose. Because their brains are wired differently, they are typically unaware of self-control, and their behaviors are unintentional.
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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 plantand 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.
Recognizing An Autistic Meltdown
An autistic meltdown can manifest in a variety of ways, including both physical and emotional outbursts. Aggression is common in children with autism. In one study, over half of the participants directed this aggression toward their caretakers. Self-harm is another concern, as a quarter of children with autism hurt themselves intentionally in some way.
An autistic meltdown can include:
- Social withdrawal.
- Hitting, kicking, or aggression toward others.
- Self-harming behaviors, such as biting, hitting, or head banging.
- Extreme crying.
Autism meltdowns can be the result of several different triggers, such as sensory overload, a change in schedule or routine, communication difficulties, or anxiety. It is helpful to know what can lead to a meltdown in order to minimize their frequency.
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Autism And Aggression: Intervention Strategies
Aggression in children with autism can take many forms, such as hitting, kicking, scratching, biting or destroying property. A childs aggression can be directed at self or others, and can be scary for everyone involved. Not every child with autism displays aggression. But for parents and teachers that do have to deal with their childs outbursts of rage, feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and embarrassment often ensue.
Aggression is most likely a side effect of communication and/or coping issues. So when a child with autism becomes aggressive, there is a reason. For instance, many children with autism have a hard time with change, so changes to their routine can cause them to get upset. Its up to us to figure out why they are being aggressive and to teach them that 1) aggression will no longer be reinforced and 2) other things they can do instead of being aggressive.
Here are some strategies to use to get your child out of the cycle of aggression:
Teach Alternative Behaviors. Once you know the reason why your child becomes aggressive, the child should be taught how to get what he wants without hitting. For example, say your student throws items whenever he is asked to do independent seat work. You might try teaching him to say, I need help or Break, please. You may also need to figure out how to make certain tasks easier for the child. As time goes on, you can teach him to work independently for longer and longer periods of time.
Invest In A Good Weighted Blanket
Weighted blankets can be very effective for children who have frequent meltdowns. These blankets apply mild pressure to the body, helping an anxious child calm down. In addition, the weights in the blankets help improve a childs body awareness which can reduce the severity of the meltdown. Alternatively, weighted vests give similar calming sensory feedback, and are a great option for summer and travel.
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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:
Acknowledge Your Childs Emotions
Instead of telling your child to stop crying, you can let him/her know that you understand his/her feelings. You can validate feelings without giving in. For example, saying something like, I know youre upset that you cant have that toy, but we cant buy it right now. Maybe next time. This lets your child know that you feel bad that he/she feels bad, but there is nothing you can dofor now.
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4. Deal with the comedown.
Meltdowns are exhausting and troubling. Some people deal with them best by simply being alone. Adults with autism benefit by recognising in advance what makes it easiest for them to recover from a meltdown and having a strategy in place for the next time they have one.
5. Have coping strategies in place.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to avoid being in situations that are potentially going to trigger a meltdown. Perhaps someone has to deal with a barrage of emails, or be in a busy city centre, even though they’re already feeling burnt out. Instead of continuing to push themselves and hope for the best, it’s important to have strategies on hand for coping with sensory overload or emotional overwhelm.
Another client, Sarah, described how she used headphones whenever she was in crowded places. If I listen to music, I can shut off better from whats happening around me. It gives me something to focus on.
Personally, most of my meltdowns come on when I have too much information to deal with. Ive become very good at telling people that I simply cannot deal with whatever it is they want me to sort out at this current time. I also write lists and flow charts to help me prioritise what needs to be prioritised, so Im less likely to lose control.
Having a plan in place isnt going to stop the meltdowns, but it can help mitigate the fallout and help autistic adults, and others, normalise those meltdowns that are a part of their autistic experience.
Autism And Aggressive Behavior
When a child engages in physical aggression, an immediate response is required, especially if the target of the aggression is a person. A lack of preparedness can result in a spontaneous reaction that may exacerbate the aggressive episode. The following techniques can help safely end physically aggressive episodes and deter repeat performances of physically aggressive behavior.
Common forms of physical aggression include:
To effectively neutrally redirect such physical behavior, the adult can prevent the child from making contact with her body by moving out of the childs range of motion. When moving away from the child is not possible, the adult may need to protect more vulnerable parts of her body with her own hands, arms or legs or by altering the position of her body relative to the child. After the adult has successfully avoided injury and the child has stopped aggressing, she will then guide him to engage in an appropriate task. It is very important that the adult not react to the child with exaggerated body movements or a change in facial expression.
More specific behavioral interventions include:
These techniques provide an adult with the safest manner to avoid injury from hitting behavior without needing to physically intervene.
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Try Distracting Your Child
This will only work if you spot the tell-tale signs of a meltdown before your child loses complete control. You can distract your child by doing anything which makes your child happy. The aim is to focus on something which is comforting but not over-stimulating. This could include something like making silly faces or singing your childs favorite song.
What To Do If Your Child Has Shutdowns
The best thing you can do for your child is provide patience and support. Shutdowns are nerve-racking for you, but also for the person experiencing them. Do what you can to be a source of comfort instead of more stress. Dont panic, ask too many questions, or go overboard trying to comfort him/her.
Watch out for what triggers your childs shutdowns and avoid it as much as possible. If its something that cant be totally avoided, like social interaction, try to find a way to make it less stressful. For example, you can keep socializing brief and gradually work up to longer visits. Provide an opportunity for your child to take a break and alternate the trigger activity with a fun one.
Some kids show a specific sign before shutting down, so watch out for that, too. The girl in the case study, for instance, rubbed her eyes when overwhelmed.
If you see a shutdown coming on, or if its started, remove your child from the environment if you can. Go to a side room, outdoors, out to the caranywhere thats calmer and quieter.
What you do next depends on what your son or daughter wants. Some kids want to hold hands, hug, or chat while they recover from overload. For others, any extra sensory input is too much, and they would rather have space to be alone while they process.
Sometimes, special interests can be helpful. A favorite stuffed animal, fidget toy, book, or other belonging might comfort your child and redirect his/her thoughts.
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Tips To Help Avoid An Autistic Meltdown
While temper tantrums can seemingly come out of nowhere, autistic meltdowns typically follow a predictable flow rumbling, rage, and recovery and there are certain things caregivers can do to help prevent them from occurring and lessen the intensity of meltdowns when they do happen. Here are 7 ideas to consider.
Use an ABC chart. If you want to know how to calm an autistic child, the first thing you should consider doing is tracking his or her behavior over the course of a few weeks using an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Chart, or ABC Chart. Its incredibly easy to create and use, and can be very powerful in determining the root cause of challenging behaviors. Each time your child has a meltdown, take a few minutes to write down the ABCs of that specific event and the behaviors that occurred:
Antecedent: The events that occurred before the meltdown happened.Behavior: Your childs response to the antecedent.Consequence: What happened after the behavior to either encourage/hinder a repeat of the situation.
The idea is to track the same behavior in this case, the meltdown multiple times to determine if there are any consistencies, and then formulate a plan to change the antecedent and/or consequence to ensure the meltdowns stop happening.
Redirect and distract. Once youre able to recognize the warning signs of an impending meltdown, redirect and distract your child to the best of your ability to help keep his or her emotions from escalating.
What Triggers Autistic Meltdowns
An autistic meltdown is usually caused by a sense of overload. Your child will have no control over their reaction. They may not be able to tell you when they feel overwhelmed.
Learning what triggers a meltdown can help you feel more prepared. Every child is different, but some common triggers include:
- Sensory overload or understimulation. This is when a child is sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, visuals or movements.
- Changes in routine or dealing with an unexpected change. People with autism often prefer to have a routine in place. They can be sensitive to even small changes.
- Anxiety or anxious feelings.
- Being unable to describe what they need or want. Communication is often non-typical for those with autism. It can feel frustrating for them when theyre misunderstood.
Keeping a behaviour diary can help spot possible patterns. Note down when meltdowns happen. Write down what you were doing, where, and your childs reaction.
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Recognizing The Motivation Or Purpose Of The Tantrum Behavior
Here are a few examples of motivation children might have:
- to get attention
- delayed access to what he wants/needs
Once you identify WHY your child is tantruming, you can respond more appropriately.
Recognize your childs needs in the moment, without giving into them.
For example: Bobby wanted to choose the TV show but his sister put on Sesame Street before he got to the remote to turn on Dora. Bobby is now on the floor kicking, yelling, and crying . Bobby wanted to choose Dora as the TV show but didnt get his way . The adult could calmly, concisely respond with I see that you are because you didnt get to choose your TV show. When youre calm, well talk about it .
When Bobby calms down, he can then be engaged in conversation about how to solve the TV show problem but he does not get his Dora TV show immediately.