We’ll start with tantrums to get them out of the way. They are the most common and are what most people think of when they see a screaming child in public. Tantrums are intentionally thrown by children and sometimes adults in order to manipulate a situation. The outburst is all about control and is a tool for the person to get what they want.
To the untrained eye, a meltdown can look like a tantrum, but the reality of what is happening to someone having a meltdown is very different. Meltdowns and shutdowns can be a result of sensory overload, physical and mental exhaustion, triggered by acute stress, or depleted energy reserves.
An overloading of the circuits and a rush of electricity, pieces of the mind start shutting down bit by bit. The disturbance is uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. It’s too much. Everything is too much. Overwhelmed and out of control, the person lashes out in an explosion of emotion. There is no time or ability for manipulation, the brain is too flooded with adrenaline for the person to think clearly.
Shutdowns are less spoken about, possibly because they can be invisible. It starts like a meltdown, with systems shutting down one by one. The word begins to feel far away as the person implodes. They may cry or sit stuck, frozen in place, like a frightened animal.
When it’s all over, the person may feel a range of emotions – drained, relieved, heavy, sick. Many people report feeling tired and being in need of rest.
This video shares the difference between an autistic meltdown and a tantrum in just over 2 minutes.