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Meltdowns Come in Different Forms, but They Are Not the Same as Tantrums

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Understanding the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum has been a fundamental part of parenting my two children with autism and a necessary part of understanding myself — diagnosed as an adult with dyslexia and dyspraxia with non-diagnosed autistic traits. The behavior from both a meltdown and tantrum can be similar to each other, but the reasoning behind the two (why the meltdown is happening) come from different places.

I have always struggled with transitions (especially leaving the house), and I become sensory overloaded in crowded and new environments. I never knew what these difficulties were until my children received their autism diagnosis and I learned more about autistic and sensory traits. My mother labeled me “hormonal” at an early age due to going through puberty at 10 years old, and we always associated my “mood swings” with hormonal imbalances.

On reflection and now with a better understanding of myself, autism and sensory sensitivities across neurodevelopmental conditions, I now know I was having meltdowns as a reaction to my environment. These were not understood as such by the people around me. Not understanding where my behavior came from made me feel misunderstood, out of control and shameful as to why these behaviors were taking place. Not understanding the cause of the meltdown also meant I couldn’t work on reducing these behaviors because I didn’t know why they were happening.

My personal experience coupled with parenting two autistic children drives me to share how a meltdown is different from a tantrum. I feel that in understanding these fundamental differences, it can help reduce some of the shame around these behaviors for the person experiencing them, and it can also allow for better coping mechanisms and strategies to be introduced for when a meltdown takes place.

Referring to a meltdown as a tantrum is really unhelpful because it suggests that the behavior comes from a place of manipulation. It suggests that the meltdown behavior is thought-out and that the person having the meltdown is in control. None of these things are true when someone has a meltdown.

Meltdowns come from a place of frustration or from being sensory overloaded. They are very distinctive and different from a tantrum in their source. A meltdown can be a consequence of environmental factors, such as too much noise, or the environment being too crowded or busy. Alternatively, a meltdown can also be a build-up of emotion that has been suppressed for a period of time.

Meltdowns can come in many different forms, such as crying, hitting, shouting and withdrawing. The reason for such behavior can come from many environmental or emotional drivers. It could be a reaction to a change in routine, or it could be through frustration that the person hasn’t understood what someone is saying. A person could also melt down because they feel injustice that rules are not being followed, or they could have had a build-up of lights, smells and sounds that cause sensory overload.

The meltdown may not always seem “logical” to someone else or may not be related to what is happening at that moment in time. This can make the reason “why” the meltdown is happening confusing for the people around them. A common reason for a meltdown in my children is when they have been struggling at school during the day and they have suppressed their emotions (trying to cope with the demands). The struggles throughout the day gradually build until they are let out in a safe environment at home when they return home from school.

A fundamental element of a meltdown is that the person experiencing it has limited to no control over their behaviors until the overload and cycle of the meltdown is complete. The duration of this is different from person to person, day to day, but in my experience, during a meltdown it is like your logical brain has walked off and all that is said and done for this period of time is uncontrolled and unmeant for the person having the meltdown. The feeling of shame around these behaviors can sometimes be extremely overwhelming, especially when being blamed by people around you who may not understand the “why” behind the behavior. It is because of this feeling of shame that understanding meltdowns in the neurodiverse population is so badly needed.

No one wants or needs to be blamed for behaviors that are out of their control. By understanding, supporting and putting strategies in place, it can help reduce meltdowns and help the person experiencing them understand and learn how to cope with them better. Not understanding where a meltdown comes from or why they occur can be damaging for the person experiencing it. Feelings of shame can be overwhelming, and without learning strategies to reduce meltdowns, the cycle of negative behavior and shame can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health.

Education about meltdowns is needed so that positive steps can be taken to support and lessen the impact this experience can have on the people and families who cope with meltdowns on a daily basis. A meltdown is not the same as a tantrum, and the two need to stop being confused so people can have support and help if they melt down.

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Thinkstock image by milosducati

Originally published: April 25, 2017
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