What is a Tantrum? What is a Meltdown? 

Tantrums are typically willful non-compliance. Personally, I’d rather someone terms it as me losing my s**t than calling it a tantrum. Hell, I call it that sometimes. Being in my mid-30s, I’m not a disobedient child… I just can’t handle processing my environment and don’t know how to react at that point. I have little – if any – control over it. It wasn’t much different thirty years ago.

When it comes to autistic children, there are many instances where it is a sheer meltdown, rather than being a tantrum. I can distinctly remember plenty of times when I was reacting based on my brain shutting down into the most basic fight-or-flight response, rather than my just being upset. That still happens to this day. That’s a meltdown.

Those are the times when an autistic individual just can’t be calmed down, short of allowing them to decompress and reset in a stable manner. Many times this means being removed from the situation and allowed to work out whatever adrenaline has been rushing through them from fear/frustration/etc. Sometimes the individual needs to be held (or use a weighted blanket, etc.) to feel safe. Sometimes they need to stim.

In my case, I typically feel the need to throw something (usually a pillow at the wall) and scream. If I can’t be removed from the situation that’s overstimulating/triggering, it’s going to escalate. If I can’t remove myself from the situation aka bolt (my general response – and apparently, pretty common amongst many autistic children and adults), I will feel even more stifled and decompensate further. If someone tries to touch me, I will probably fight them off, because I hate being touched when I’m in meltdown mode. It will seem like I’m a toddler throwing a tantrum. But again, it’s not willful as it is with a child who just wants to scream about not getting their way. I really can’t help it. Same with autistic kids.

As I’ve gotten older (and finally managed to get some therapy), I’ve learned tactics to help me recognize and (usually) mitigate oncoming meltdowns. I remove myself from a situation before it gets to be too much. I stim without shame. I know what most of my triggers are and don’t intentionally expose myself to situations where I know they’re going to pose a problem. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through, but that’s life in a neurotypical word when you’re autistic (for anyone wondering if autism truly is a disability… there’s your answer; yes, it is, because we have to live in a world set up for neurotypical living, so we’re at a big disadvantage).

Yes, kids may start off tantrumming, but it will turn into a meltdown because their own noise/actions triggers them to not be able to process sensory input. But it’s very important to recognize the difference between a willful tantrum and a meltdown, over which they have no control. Learning to spot your child’s individual tells/symptoms for tantrum vs. meltdown is key. It’s also vital to know your child’s triggers. Look for patterns leading up to, during, and after these incidents.

If your child is verbal, discuss the situation with them after they are in a calm, collected mindset. Make them feel valued and safe. Let them know that you are not judging them and want to communicate openly with them, so you can work together to help them avoid feeling bad in the future. If your child is non-verbal, you can do the exact same thing… because non-verbal children can also communicate, be it via drawing, using an AAC device, flash cards, interpretive dance, smoke signals, or whatever alternate means works best for them. And remember… behavior IS communication.

But Giraffe Party, you ask, what about when law enforcement is involved? What if my child has a meltdown in a public place? Members of the law enforcement community will generally understand when you tell them your child is autistic and having a meltdown. More and more cops are being trained to handle these situations and work with autistic individuals, not against them or their parents (if the subject is a juvenile). I can’t wait for the day when ALL of them are able to recognize a meltdown and handle it appropriately. Then I can stop living in fear of being beaten to death or shot because I’m unable to be compliant when mid-meltdown. Yeah parents, you worry about getting arrested… I worry about being killed. But that’s a discussion for another time.