Temper tantrums are universal — and look pretty much the same for all kids. At a park or inside a grocery store, at home or wherever, a kid moves through the tantrum from anger to sadness while a parent stands by unable to do much of anything to shorten it (no matter what they think). There are some nuances between tantrums — what triggers them especially, and how to deal with that trigger — but when your kid is autistic, it’s a whole other ball game. What you think may be a temper tantrum could actually be an autism meltdown.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) defines an autism meltdown as an intense reaction — like shouting, screaming, crying, kicking, lashing out, or biting — in response to being overwhelmed. “Young children don’t have sophisticated emotional vocabularies, so a child screaming for a specific toy is going to look like bad behavior in a neurotypical kid,” says Noor Pervez, the community engagement manager for the Autism Self Advocacy Network. “But for a child with autism, he may be screaming because he has no way to communicate that he needs that toy to feel safe in his environment.”
Just about every child is prone to temper tantrums once and a while. And because one in 44 children in the U.S. are autistic, meltdowns are common too. The two look similar, but the causes and strategies to manage them are vastly different, and knowing that difference is crucial for parents of autistic children to be able to best help their kid get through the outburst.
Autism Meltdown vs. a Tantrum
Temper tantrums follow a predictable pattern: A tantrum begins with often explosive high-intensity anger and winds down to whimpering sadness. They usually are triggered by a child wanting attention, not wanting to do something, or not getting what they want. Each trigger slightly changes the ideal way to react (to ignore them completely, to work with them to do the task, and to not give them that thing, respectively). But the real bottom line here is that tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, and your child will grow out of it.
Autism meltdowns, however, have no age limit. They result from a buildup of sensory or emotional stimulation that chips away at a child’s ability to control their behavior. “Think of a faucet with a slow drip. That slow drip will eventually cause the sink to overflow if the drain is plugged,” Pervez says. “Sensory issues like light, touch, noises, changes in routine, or other emotional stress are like that slow drip. Their sink is plugged because they don’t have effective ways to communicate, so eventually, their brains overflow, resulting in a meltdown.”
“I would scream a lot, not screaming as in being mad at anyone, but just a lot of loud vocalizations, shaking, and occasionally hitting things,” says Jacob Lewis, a 19-year-old student at Hofstra University who was diagnosed with autism in fifth grade. “My body felt so overwhelmed and kind of in shock.”
The way meltdowns present can change over time. “As the child gets older, tantrum-like behavior becomes less socially acceptable, so they may go from loud and explosive to looking quiet from the outside but explosive internally,” Pervez says.
How to React to an Autism Meltdown
It’s important not to judge someone having a meltdown, according to the NAS. They may not be able to respond to you, and any effort to minimize their experience can make the situation worse.
“During a meltdown, I can’t focus on how I’m sounding or how others perceive me, but it’s never out of malice or wanting attention. It’s just me being overwhelmed, which I think everyone can relate to,” Lewis says.
It’s essential to stay calm, Pervez explains. If you’re afraid the child’s behavior could risk the safety of people around them, quietly direct others to move away. If possible, move the child to a quiet, safe space, even if it means leaving the store or dropping your planned activities.
Autism meltdowns aren’t something children or adults opt into by choice. “Never shame someone who is experiencing a meltdown,” Pervez says.
Have a Game Plan for Meltdowns
“When everyone is calm, sit down and ask the child what they need when they’re in that state,” Pervez says. “The answer will be different for everyone. Some children need a complete lack of sensory stimulation, and others are sensory seeking. For example, one child might want a weighted blanket, their choice of music, or to be left alone. Another might prefer physical contact, like the pressure from a service animal or a tight hug.”
It’s more challenging to understand what a young or non-communicative child needs. But listening, asking questions, using pictures, and paying attention to overstimulation can go a long way in calming the next meltdown when it occurs or stopping it before it becomes a blowup.
“If you have a kid who is non-speaking or unable to communicate well, you can use a communication app, pictures, or a letter board,” Pervez says. For instance, if you’re visiting a new place, like a hospital or shopping mall, use pictures showing the child what that place will look like before going.
“If you’re unsure what the child’s triggers are, try mapping the day or creating a visual schedule,” Pervez says. “Think about life events going on around the child, like changing schools, moving, bullying, or changing hormones. Find out what the child needs to feel safe again.”
Autism Parenting suggests carrying a portable sensory toolkit to help with meltdowns while you’re out. Fidget toys and chewy, crunchy snacks can have a calming effect, plus hungry kids are usually cranky. Parents of non-communicative children should pack a communication board with symbols that a child can point to if they need a break, want to leave, or find it too noisy.
How to Prevent an Autism Meltdown
Autistic people may show signs of distress before a meltdown begins, according to the NAS. This period is often referred to as the “rumble stage.” Your child may show behaviors such as pacing, rocking, repetitive questioning, or becoming still.
During the rumble stage, there may be a chance to prevent a meltdown. Provide headphones and sunglasses if your child is sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. If they’re in a crowded place where people are bumping against them, like a subway station, wait until the crowd thins before diving through it to catch your train.
Unexpected changes in routine can also bring on a meltdown. Let the child express their frustration about the change, then walk them through what the rest of the day will look like.
Lewis adds, “As cliché as it sounds, open communication is the best way to go. When a parent is neurotypical and the child is autistic, they both have knowledge the other doesn’t. So it’s important to bridge that gap.”