a meltdown is not a tantrum

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 6.48.27 AM

{image is a photo of a young man curled into a ball, covering his head with his hands}

On the outside it might look like a sudden explosion, but it’s actually the final few minutes of a process that may have taken hours or even days to develop.

Bec at Snagglebox, What Does a Meltdown Feel Like?

I thought she wouldn’t stop.
I didn’t know she couldn’t stop.I didn’t know there was a difference.
I just didn’t know.

An autistic meltdown is not a tantrum.

One is about control.

The other is a loss of control.

One is about testing boundaries.

The other is not feeling safe.

One is an attempt to manipulate.

The other is a cry for help.

Diary, Untitled, May, 2004

Discipline is never an appropriate response to a meltdown, because it’s not behaviour which is intentional or under conscious control. Kids experiencing this kind of physiological response need calm, reassurance and a reduction in the amount of input they’re being asked to process. In short, they need an escape route.

Bec at Snagglebox, Meltdowns vs Tantrums

Katie, talking to me about the stress of too many things going on at once: I’m just feeling really overwhelmed.

Brooke, overhearing from the backseat: It’s okay, Katie, you’re safe.

– Last week

A meltdown is not a tantrum.

Punishing fear, overwhelm, and desperation, is not only counterproductive, it’s cruel.

Assigning it a name that connotes control and manipulation is not just dismissive but dangerous.

There was a time I didn’t know.

I can’t live there.

It hurts too much and it doesn’t help the Now.

But I can use it.

I can change it for someone else.

A meltdown is not a tantrum.

19 thoughts on “a meltdown is not a tantrum

  1. Jess
    I didn’t know either but we are learning all the time. It is a process of understanding. I feel sorry for those who choose not to appreciate what we attempt to share in this process. This happened to me when I wanted to try and explain my son’s behaviour as a result of a meltdown to some dear people in our life. Sadly they just dismissed me.
    Sensory overload occurs to us all in varying degrees and especially as our world becomes sensory bombarding more and more. This in addition to constant pressure in every stage of life including school.
    Thank you for sharing your words and Bec’s. I love what she writes about all this stuff.
    I needed to be reminded of this today….Peace

  2. I just tried to have this conversation with my MIL last night. She still doesn’t get it. Her reply after trying to explain a really rough day followed by a meltdown, was “oh, all kids do that.” No, no they don’t. Please don’t compare a meltdown to my niece’s tantrum for not getting her way( she’s 11, going on 25, my son is 12). It can be so frustrating and I know if I send this post to her, she would just brush it off.

  3. Thanks for sharing, it’s very helpful! I will share this with my kiddos parents. It’s all about understanding which a lot don’t have. But all this great stuff you share help us all. When parents and other Therapists tell me that I am not too firm enough, I always say, “I wish we could all walk in their shoes and then we’d know how it really feels like!” I had seizures growing up for 4 years and I know those medications are not funny and especially how they made me feel after. Lots of fine and gross motor coordination problems as well as drooling and mutism. Mom was the only one who got it, and never said it’s manipulation or other stuff. Coming from that helps me relate to Special people. I don’t want to punish anyone for their disabilities, I believe it’s not fair!

  4. Hi I love your explanation of the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. May I quote it on our mom autism site and out a link to your blog? Thanks Heidi

    Sent from my HTC

  5. My autistic son is 3. He has both. And quite often. We know the difference now and know how to react differently to each. I fear all the time that his teachers at daycare know the difference and also react differently to them. They tell me they do, because I remind them of the difference all the time. But he moves up to the next class in May and I am already scared about this. I fear it all the time.

  6. Yes. YES. My little brother is (barely) on the spectrum. It has taken my mother his entire life to almost learn the difference between meltdown and tantrum (the rest of us took varying amounts of time). My brother? He’s 16. He and my mother still face off a lot, with a lot of communication issues during those meltdowns. I’m going to show this post to her, I think she’ll really like the eloquent coherence you bring to such an emotional topic!

  7. Reblogged this on I'm Right Here Beff and commented:
    I love this blog, but this particular post is just so beautifully put! It’s so important to remember the difference between tantrums and meltdowns…. and to remember your compassion.

  8. My autistic kiddo takes swim lessons at a theraputic hospital that runs an autism program. But anyone can take lessons there. The kiddo before my kiddo did not want to leave after his lesson. I have no idea if he is autistic. Mom yelled, counted down from five, hauled him up around the waist, let the lifeguard try. There was a safety issue of running on a wet pool deck. It was hard to tell if it was a tantrum or a meltdown or what I could do to help. All I did was not let myself or my kids stare. Hoping maybe (if she comes back) or trying to get there early and chat her up. I definitely kept your words about meltdowns in mind.

  9. its a place I also feel pain to remember but now I know, (or mostly know but still learning).
    I reposted this on my FB page and a friend told me yesterday it made her handle her ASD son differently, asking how she could help him, resulting in a calmer evening for him and him thanking her. Lovely

  10. This distinction has been a huge revelation for me. Both my son and I tend to melt down more internally , becoming numb, quiet and desperate. I’m finally beginning to see our triggers and also that almost always time alone in a quiet place (dark sometimes – part of my meltdowns is often migraines) is KEY.
    Thanks for this post!

  11. The way Bec at Snagglebox described a meltdown is almost exactly how I experience them and I’m crying, seeing it put into words, by another person, who gets it. It’s not just me. I’m not just ‘too sensitive’ or ‘overreacting’ or ‘being silly’.

    • honey, it sounds like you are going to find a lot of these moments as you continue this journey. they will be beautiful and affirming and they will, at times, be almost too much to bear. you aren’t the only one. i promise. i don’t know if you’re a hugger, but i hope you’ll accept a virtual one from me.

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