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Tantrums and Autistic Meltdowns: What is the Difference?

There seems to be some confusion about the difference between tantrums and autistic meltdowns. Both can look very similar, but there are some key differences. In this post, we'll explore what those differences are and how to tell the two apart. Stay tuned for more tips on how to deal with each type of behavior!

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference?

Autistic meltdowns are far different from temper tantrums because it is more serious and last longer than an ordinary temper tantrum.

The Differences Between Tantrums and Autistic Meltdowns

A tantrum is often a goal-oriented action. Often young children learn that by tantrums, they can achieve a reward such as a wanted behavior or the desired object.

Children often have a request, and when it is declined, they learn that by throwing a tantrum, they can frustrate their parents or teachers and reach their goal.

As soon as the child achieves the goal, the disruptive behavior ends since there is no reason to display it anymore. In this way, tantrums can be seen as a kind of negotiation tactic, albeit an unruly one.

This is an expression or response of a child when he or she does not get the attention he or she wants or needs. This is a way for them to express that they are frustrated if they do not get what they want.

Let’s say you are in a fair and your child wants to ride a massive rollercoaster, but his height is not allowed.

When he starts whining, screaming, and crying, usually, those signs can be your child having a temper tantrum because he can’t ride the rollercoaster. 

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference

They seek attention, and they are a lot more demanding when this happens. It also occurs when a child is denied and is a normal method they use to gain attention.

One good way to minimize temper tantrums with children is to reinforce positive behavior, praise good behavior, stay calm, make eye contact, and much more.

There are a lot of strategies and techniques on how to stop this, but of course, in the end, parents know best for their children!

When an autistic person has a meltdown, it is not for attention or manipulating a situation. It is usually caused by too much stimulation from the senses.

Many autistic people are oversensitive to sound, smell, light, etc. The overload of sensation leads to overwhelm and can cause a meltdown.

Meltdowns are often more intense than tantrums and can be more emotional and longer lasting.

They can be difficult to handle, but understanding the cause can help ease the situation.

Autism meltdowns are not created as a reward request system, they happen as a reaction to sensory overload.

By understanding this, we can better help those who experience meltdowns.

This happens with or without an audience, unlike an ordinary temper tantrum.

Though autism meltdowns can be common for people with autism, it is still tough and difficult for them and for their parents. 

As mentioned, tantrums often happen in younger children, and as the child grows up, they become less and less frequent.

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference

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However, autistic meltdowns are not age-related, and they may happen at any age.

Many autistic adults, especially the higher functioning ones, may learn some strategies to prevent meltdowns and cope with them.

For example, some people with autism find it helpful to have a “safe place” to go to when they feel overwhelmed.

This could be a quiet room where they can be alone, or it could be a place outside where they can feel the fresh air on their face.

Other people with autism find it helpful to have a specific set of tools or objects that they can use to self-regulate during a meltdown.

This might include deep-pressure items like blankets or stuffed animals, or fidget toys that they can hold on to.

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference

Whatever the strategy, the important thing is that it works for the individual person.

With some planning and effort, many people with autism can prevent or manage meltdowns.

Autism meltdowns are their way of responding to expressing feelings and emotions of anxiety and being overwhelmed.

Meltdowns can be predicted through warning signs and cues. 

Stimming or repetitive or unusual body movements or noises can also be associated with autism meltdowns, including bouncing, pulling hair, rocking, repetitive blinking, and more.

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Do tantrums happen in children with autism?

Yes, All children have tantrums from time to time. It's a normal part of growing up.

However, for children with autism, tantrums can be more intense and more frequent. The challenge for parents is to identify when a child is having a meltdown and when they are having a tantrum.

This is important since the approach to these two situations is quite different.

A tantrum is usually caused by frustration or fatigue, which can be resolved by removing the child from the stressful situation or providing a distraction.

A meltdown, on the other hand, is caused by overwhelming sensory input or anxiety.

Meltdowns can't be resolved in the same way as tantrums, and trying to do so will only worsen the situation.

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference

How to tell if your child is having an autistic meltdown or a tantrum?

As any parent knows, tantrums and meltdowns can look eerily similar.

Both involve screaming, crying, kicking, hitting, and breath holding.

However, there are a few key points that can help to differentiate between the two.

First, tantrums are usually shorter in duration than meltdowns.

They also tend to be triggered by a specific event or frustration, such as being told ‘no' or being asked to share a toy.

In contrast, meltdowns are more often characterized by an overwhelming feeling of despair or hopelessness.

They may be triggered by sensory overload, changes in routine, or other forms of stress.

Additionally, meltdowns tend to be much harder for the child to recover.

While tantrums generally pass relatively quickly, a child who has had a meltdown may need some time to calm down and regroup before they can resume their day.

As a result, it's important for parents to be attuned to the subtle differences between tantrums and meltdowns.

With a little practice, they'll be able to quickly identify which type of outburst their child is experiencing and respond accordingly.

Overall, autistic meltdowns and ordinary temper tantrums are completely different and also are not similar in their causes and reasons why they happen. 

Autism is more intense than a temper tantrum, and this is definitely tough for the person with autism itself, as well as with their parents, guardians, and caregivers. 

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference

So what triggers an autistic meltdown?

There are many reasons why this happens with people with autism.

But one of the most common reasons why this happens is because of sensory overload or under stimulation.

Autistic people experience sensory overload and respond strongly to many factors such as background noises, strong smells, bright lights, etc.

These things can potentially trigger them and make them anxious, which can result in a possible meltdown.

Autism meltdowns usually start after signs of distress and anxiety, requiring support. 

Again, autistic meltdowns are not just limited to children, but they can still happen with teenagers and adults with an autistic spectrum disorder or ASD.

Unlike temper tantrums, autistic meltdowns have no control over their behavior, which can be caused by overstimulation or undesirable sensory output.

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It is a more intense reaction to sensory overwhelm.

Other reasons for having meltdowns are communication difficulties where they can be frustrated and anxious with communication delays since some can experience difficulty understanding things.

There are many ways how to cope with autistic meltdowns.

But again, every person is different and has unique ways of handling and managing these types of situations.

There are many recommendations by experts to minimize potential meltdowns, such as recognizing stressors and triggering factors that can make them have a meltdown.

Especially when you are in public, it is vital to avoid places that are overcrowded and have a bunch of noises and bright lights.

Another is to stay calm and focus on your child, plus bring sensory toolkits to keep your child distracted and entertained. 

Tantrum and Autistic Meltdown: What is the Difference

What is the difference between temper tantrums and autistic meltdowns?

There are a lot of differences! 

First temper tantrums require an audience, but autistic meltdowns can happen with or without one.

Temper tantrums are beyond the control of a child, while on the other hand, a person with autism has no control over his or her meltdown

Another thing is that autistic meltdowns can happen at any age. It can happen with toddlers, children, teenagers, and adults with an autism spectrum disorder or ASD.

Temper tantrums usually happen with toddlers and children only.

Autistic meltdowns are more intense and long-lasting than an ordinary temper tantrums.

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If you have a child with autism, it is important to be able to distinguish between a tantrum and a meltdown. Tantrums can often be handled by providing positive reinforcement or removing the child from the situation. A meltdown, on the other hand, requires a more strategic approach that may involve seeking professional help.

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