Meltdowns vs Tantrums

One of the first things you need to learn as an autism parent is that there is a clear difference between tantrums and meltdowns. A tantrum usually has a purpose—the child wants something and thinks that a tantrum is the best way to get it. Once you give in to whatever it is, the tantrum stops. A meltdown, on the other hand, is a reaction to something.It typically is beyond a child’s control. They are overwhelmed by their surroundings and it is the only way they know how to cope. I tend to think of it as what happens after the straw breaks the camel’s back.

The two things can look very similar, especially to people who are outside of the autism spectrum. They see your kid screaming at the grocery store and immediately assume that it is because you told them they can’t have something they want. They write off your child as just another entitled kid with terrible parents. It doesn’t occur to them that it could actually be because the lady next to you drowned herself in perfume, and that mixed with the buzzing from the florescent light, the scratchy tag on the back of their shirt, and the constant visual onslaught of all those items on the shelves with their bright packaging, is just too much for one little kid to handle. Since most people are capable of filtering these everyday things out, they have no concept of how intensely it can bother someone.

But as a parent of a kid with sensory issues, we have to be able to differentiate so that we can work through it accordingly. A tantrum can be acknowledged but the second you give in, you are inviting it to happen again. I usually just stand there and ask my kids very calmly, “Has acting like this ever gotten you what you want?” and then they usually taper off because the answer to that question is no. On the other hand, if there was something that kicked off the meltdown and you give in, the meltdown still won’t end. It’s too late. The only thing you can do is wait it out.Sometimes you’re in a public place so that isn’t easy to do. It can be really embarrassing, too. Just remind yourself that it is, at its heart, an uncontrolled response. If your child could help it, they wouldn’t have melted down. Don’t let other people’s attitudes interfere with you helping your kiddo. JudgyMcJudgerson over there can actually control her behavior, so she’s the one who should be acting better.

Every kid will respond differently to calm-down techniques. Hugh needs me to pull him into my lap and hug him as tightly as I can until he is able to regain control. AJ, on the other hand, usually needs to be relocated to a safe place where he can lay on the ground and kick and scream until he exhausts himself. I remember one particularly bad meltdown when Hugh was sick. We got through the exam and were about to walk out of the office when the receptionist called me back. Hugh, having finally seen the exit, could not understand why we had do go back. He threw himself on the floor and started screaming bloody murder. Everyone in the waiting room looked at me and I could see the judgement in every single adult’s face. Spoiled brat, they were thinking to themselves. I couldn’t get close enough to Hugh with all the flailing limbs to pick him up, so there was no hope of calming him down. He had handled everything as much as he could and that was his limit. I was forced to pull him by the arm—across the dirty floor—and back to reception to fill out one last form they had forgotten to give me earlier. It was one of my most humiliating moments as a parent. The receptionist, who knows Hugh pretty well and knew what was going on, apologized for setting him off. We had to let him scream a little more before he was worn out enough that I could safely get him back to the car and wait the rest of it out.

It’s going to be hard. Tantrums are difficult and meltdowns are terrible. But they are going to be part of your life. All you can do is learn how best to handle it with your child and then help them through it the best you can.