Autism and Behavior—Meltdowns vs. Tantrums
Traditionally, when people see an upset child crying, screaming, and falling on the ground, they call it a tantrum and assume the child is wanting their own way. They may label the child in negative ways—as a brat…spoiled…a problem. For autistic children, these same behaviors may indicate something quite different. It may not be a tantrum. It may be what is known as a meltdown. Let’s look at the difference.
A tantrum is when a child needs or wants something badly, and acts out of frustration and a sense of powerlessness. This is actually a developmental stage for young children, as they learn how to exert control over their environment. It is sometimes frustrating to deal with, but it is a normal part of child development. What is important is that we do not blame the child or label them in negative ways. For autistic individuals, controlling one’s environment can be really challenging, so upset behaviors can be expected. A tantrum can be a learning experience, as well. It is a chance for a child to learn the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
Meltdowns are epic eruptions of emotion. During a meltdown, a child is in full crisis mode. When noises, information, frustration, or other sensory issues become overwhelming, it’s like a runaway train, and it usually can’t be stopped. You just need to ride it out with your child, providing comfort, empathy, and support until it’s over. Learning to avoid meltdowns starts with the important concept of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the ability to manage our own emotions so that we can function in the world. Too often, we expect children to control their behavior, but in the case of a child who has meltdowns, the burden is on us to change the environment and provide the right tools.
Here are four simple tips to help support your child before, during, and after a meltdown.
Before a meltdown occurs…
1. Make sure your child has a way to communicate. It doesn’t have to be speaking. It can be pictures or a tablet app or sign language. Remember, once a child is overloaded with input, their ability to communicate shrinks. Have communication tools handy before a meltdown happens and then after it’s over. Don’t push them to communicate during a meltdown.
2. Designate a “calming corner” in your house. It should be away from the busy parts of the house. Fill it with soft pillows and dim lights. Have headphones handy to block noise. When your child is in this calm space, respect their boundaries. Allow them to just be alone there, unless they indicate that they want you nearby. There should be minimal talking there, to keep it as quiet as possible. This calm corner can help soothe your child’s nervous system when they are overloaded with
noise, people, frustration, or information.
During a meltdown…
3. Don’t blame your child, express frustration, or punish them. They can’t help having a meltdown. When too much floods their nervous system and brain, they really can’t regain control. It’s like a website that is flooded with too many requests; the system crashes. So be patient and help your child get to a calmer state.
4. Be calm and quiet. During a meltdown, don’t try to talk to or reason with your
child. It will only add to the pressure, noise, and upset. Just be there as a touchstone of calm amidst the storm.
After a meltdown…
5. Give your child sensory support. Perhaps they enjoy deep pressure massage, where you gently but firmly squeeze their hands, arms, legs, and feet. Perhaps swinging on a suspended or outdoor swing is calming to them. Taking a walk can be calming. Try different things when they are not upset to see what they enjoy and find soothing. A meltdown is an exhausting and upsetting event for your child. Provide them a safe space to decompress and deal with the adrenaline leaving their body.
For many autistic individuals, meltdowns are an unavoidable part of life. But with your support, they can weather these emotional storms more comfortably. Bit by bit, you can help your child learn to work through tough emotions.
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