Tantrum or Autistic Meltdown – How You Can Spot the Difference


Hi everybody. Have you ever wondered the difference between an autistic meltdown and a tantrum? This week we’re going to dive in deeply to this topic.

[00:00:07] Come on. Let’s go.

[00:00:45] So first meltdowns and tantrums can look alike, especially at first glance, but knowing the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum can help you to respond appropriately to the situation – by showing compassion and support to someone who is struggling.

[00:01:08] First, let’s talk about the tantrum because I think this is really eas to get out of the way. A tantrum is when someone is trying to get something, someone may lash out when they don’t get their way or an attempt to control the situation. This part is very important.

[00:01:30] With tantrums. Generally, the person has a motivation and a reasonable amount of control over their behavior. So with the tantrums, that means they are purpose driven. There is an end goal to the tantrum. Someone having a tantrum might stop long enough to make sure they’re being watched  because tantrums are intended to get a reaction out of another person.

[00:01:59] Tantrums, typically, wIll stop when the person having the tantrum either gets their way or realizes that acting this way isn’t going to work for them this time.

[00:02:12] A meltdown on the other hand is something completely different.

[00:02:16] An Autistic person may have a meltdown if they are feeling overwhelmed and meltdowns can be triggered by overwhelming senses and emotions. For other autistic people, sudden changes or surprises could potentially trigger a meltdown.

[00:02:33] Meltdowns can also be triggered by sensory overload when there is too much information or sensory information for an Autistic person’s brain to process.

[00:02:47] It is important to remember that a meltdown is outside of an Autistic person’s control. While tantrums will often stop after someone gets their way, meltdowns typically only end when the meltdown has run its course or the Autistic person finds a quieter environment with less sensory information and is able to relax and soothe themselves.

[00:03:13] If it seems like it’s a very small thing that has set off someone and sent them into a meltdown. Often the little thing that appears to have triggered the meltdown is often not the only the thing that has contributed to contributed to an Autistic person who is crumbling in front of you. What may seem like a little thing is often the final straw – the last of many, many things that may have added up to where the Autistic person just can’t take anymore.

[00:03:56] Going back to the differences between a tantrum and an autistic meltdown, as I mentioned earlier, tantrums are social events with an end goal of getting something from someone else and a meltdown can happen when an autistic person is alone.

[00:04:13] In fact, when I have a meltdown, I want to be alone.  If I feel.  A meltdown is coming or a meltdown is starting. I will literally run to av- to avoid interaction with other people. I will seek out a private place because I don’t need interaction from other people when I’m feeling overwhelmed. In fact, often well-meaning people seem to make things worse if I am melting down because they don’t know how to respond or they are  thinking I’m having a tantrum. Which is not the case.

[00:04:53] If I had to describe a meltdown, I would say it feels like a volcano that is building pressure until it is ready to erupt. And eventually there is a point of no return in that volcano and prevention can only go so far before the explosive release of energy and emotion bursts out.

[00:05:23]At the end of a meltdown, I  often feel a sense of catharsis as the pressure is released.

[00:05:31] During meltdowns, I feel a lot of overwhelming anxiety, and this is common  to feel very anxious and just very overwhelmed. That is why the meltdown is an Autistic person who is overwhelmed.

[00:05:47] These are overwhelming emotions, feelings, and potentially sensory experiences or all of the above.

[00:05:55] On top of, or in place of meltdowns. Some Autistic people have shut down. Where they are overwhelmed or overloaded and implode on themselves. When I was younger, I used to melt down more, but over the years, the way I react to being overwhelmed has changed and it is now more common for me to have shutdowns. Although the occasional meltdown does still happen.

[00:06:24] Shutdowns suck because all of the energy that would have been released during the meltdown is channeled and turn inwards. I don’t feel this catharsis after a shutdown. There’s no quick release. Shutdowns are often more painful and more draining mentally, emotionally, and even physically.

[00:06:46] With a meltdown it is the end but with a shutdown, there’s no resolution. It may just be a bandaid. A postponing, a future meltdown.

[00:06:59] Shutdowns are also safer because they are less likely to gain attention from people around you.  Autistic people don’t melt down or shut down for attention.

[00:07:11]I would like to be invisible when this happens to me. I learned to shut down instead of melting down because explosive  meltdowns got me into trouble. People don’t react well to Autistic meltdowns and having them in public can be down right dangerous, especially for people who don’t look like me.

[00:07:36] And by that, I mean, I’m tiny. I’m not a threat to anyone when I cry or lash out. People are not likely to feel very fearful of my 105 pound five foot two, person. That is just the way it is.

[00:07:55] Other people with different races, genders, and body types might find themselves in additional danger if they melt down in public.

[00:08:04]Education is so important because when the public sees someone who is in distress, we need to realize that this person in front of you might need help and you don’t need to be afraid of someone who is having a meltdown. That person is probably experiencing enough fear and panic on their own.

[00:08:35] I speak from personal experience – that a bit of compassion and understanding is what we’re needing and asking for.

[00:08:44]Do you have meltdowns? Do you have shutdowns? Do you have both? What is a meltdown like for you?

[00:08:52] This is just one vlog, one Autistic person’s personal experience, but as Autistic people, we all have a large variety of experiences and what may be true for me is not necessarily true for other Autistic people.

[00:09:10] As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Please drop me a note about what meltdowns are like for you as an Autistic person.

[00:09:21] I put out new videos every Wednesday. So don’t forget to subscribe and turn on notifications.

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[00:09:49]I will talk to you next week. Bye.


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4 thoughts on “Tantrum or Autistic Meltdown – How You Can Spot the Difference

  1. I sincerely appreciate the transcript of the video you post.

    Also, I think it’s compassionate for me to assume it’s a meltdown if it’s someone I don’t know.

    My son’s meltdowns really do look like tantrums because they are usually based in being asked to do something he doesn’t feel capable of doing. There are a lot of “NO’s” involved. But I know him, and I know when he can’t switch it off, and when he needs me to wrap him tight in arms or weighted blanket in a dark room. It doesn’t happen in public much anymore, and I don’t care what other people think when it happens. It’s my fault. I’ve pushed him too far without reading his signals.

  2. Enjoyed your vlog on this topic. Is it possible that what may begin as a tantrum can turn into a meltdown? Often the desire for what my son wants/demands is really coming from place of anxiety, loneliness or insecurity – some sort of deeper uncomfortable feelings and what appears to be a tantrum can get so big that the reason it started is forgotten, and once it’s over there is that sense of catharsis and no longer the need for whatever it was being demanded/requested. What are your thoughts? For me it can be difficult to discern.

    Beth bgbolstad@verizon.net


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