How Are Autistic Meltdowns Different From Ordinary Temper Tantrums?

Autistic meltdowns are not the same as ordinary temper tantrums.

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What's a meltdown?

The word "meltdown" was originally invented to describe what happens when, after a series of incidents and warnings,  the core of a nuclear reactor is exposed to the air.  A major crisis occurs, and the possible outcomes include lethal exposure to radioactivity or a massive explosion.

Some parents use the term to refer to their children's temper tantrums as in "Oh, he's just having a meltdown."

What do parents really mean by this?

In most cases, parents simply mean "My little one is overtired, and he is unable to handle the emotional stress -- so it's coming out in howls and tears.  He'll be fine after a nap."  Alternatively, they may mean "My child wants what he wants when he wants it, and thinks that I'll cave in if he throws a tantrum or cries."

How Is an Autistic Meltdown Different from an Ordinary Tantrum?

When parents of children with autism describe their child as melting down, they mean something a little different from the norm -- something a little closer to the original meaning of the word. An autistic meltdown is bigger, more emotional, longer lasting, and more difficult to manage than the average -- and it has specific qualities that make it a little different from the usual "terrible twos" event.  Specifically:

  • Autistic meltdowns are not limited to young children on the spectrum.  It can occur with tweens, teens, and even adults -- and, surprisingly, may occur even among individuals with high functioning forms of autism.
  • Autistic meltdowns generally begin with warning signals.  These are actually called "rumblings" -- outward signs of distress. 
  • Rumblings might start with a verbal plea to "go now," or visually obvious signs of distress such as hands over the ears..
  • Rumblings may include or progress to "stims" (self-stimulatory behaviors, such as rocking, pacing, or finger flicking) or other signs of anxiety.  Stims are self-calming techniques used by people with autism to help regulate anxiety or sensory input.  If you see a person with autism rocking back and forth, pacing, or otherwise "stimming," there's a good chance that he or she is feeling stressed (though it's also possible that he or she is just excited).

    How Autistic Symptoms Relate to Meltdowns

    If "rumblings" are a form of warning signal, then bolting or intense stimming can be seen as the emergency siren. 

    Bolting, which is more common among very young children or older people with severe autism, means -- very simply -- running away.  A person with autism, faced with overwhelming sensory input, anxiety, or stress, may just run from the room.  While this is a great coping mechanism, it can become very dangerous when the person doing the bolting is unaware of issues such as oncoming traffic.

    Intense stimming, such as high energy rocking, slamming the hand into the forehead, or other obvious signs of agitation, mean a meltdown is imminent. 

    As you may have noticed, rumblings are a response to stress and/or sensory overload -- and NOT a form of manipulation.  While a typical child might tantrum in order to embarrass or upset a parent (with the goal of getting their own way), children with autism rarely have the "mind-reading" tools to intentionally manipulate another person's emotions.

    Managing Autistic Meltdowns

    When a child (or adult) with autism has gotten to the rumbling stage, it may be possible to intervene before a meltdown begins.  For example, a child who is overwhelmed by the noise and light at a mall may calm down quickly when taken outside.  A child who is anxious about a social situation may be just fine if he's provided with clear direction and support. 

    If intervention doesn't occur, or doesn't solve the problem, a meltdown is inevitable.  While some people with autism merely yell or stamp, many really do become overwhelmed by their own emotions.  Bolting, hitting, self-abuse, crying, and screaming are all possibilities -- particularly frightening when the autistic individual is physically large.

    When a full meltdown is in progress, it can be hard to manage.  Safety -- both for the person with autism and for others in the area -- is most important, and so it may be necessary to move to a quiet room (sometimes this may require more than one person to avoid injury) until the meltdown is over.

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