As part of the A to Z Challenge, my theme is autism.  I’m taking advantage of the fact that April is Autism Awareness Month… it just seemed a perfect fit!  So moving on with today… M is for The Meltdown vs. The Tantrum.

The meltdown is common characteristic among those with autism or sensory issues.  It is loud, scary, potentially dangerous and quite exhausting for all involved.  Meltdowns are not to be confused with tantrums.  There are definite differences between the two if you know what to look for.

A tantrum would generally begin by a child asking for something, for example, food or a toy.  If the parent refuses, a tantrum can follow with actions like stomping their feet, kicking, screaming or crying.  If a parent gives in to the tantrum, it ends quickly and the child wins learning how to get what they want.

A meltdown, though it may look similar to a tantrum, is a result of the child being over stimulated or under stimulated by their environment.   It may be the lighting, the crowds, the noise or any number of other possibilities.  They may also occur as a result from a want that is not being met.  However, unlike the tantrum, a parent giving in does not end a meltdown.

Let’s look at an example situation.  You are on a shopping trip with your child and they want a chocolate bar that they see in the store.  You don’t allow your child to have the chocolate bar and the tantrum/meltdown ensues.

Is it a Tantrum?

If the child is experiencing a tantrum, he/she will manipulate the situation to attain their goal.  They will be aware of whether or not their ‘performance’ is gaining attention.  During the tantrum, the child will be sure that despite their actions, they do not hurt themselves.  In the end, if the parent gives in to calm the situation down, the tantrum will stop.

Is it a Meltdown?

If the child is experiencing a meltdown, he/she is unable to deal with the feelings involved with having their request refused.  The meltdown escalates to a point that the desired goal is no longer of any importance.  The child will not be aware of anyone around them and they do not care how they look or how others feel.  Ensuring your child’s safety is of utmost importance as they will be unaware of their safety and potential dangers.  They have lost complete control. If a parent was to buy the chocolate bar to calm the situation, the meltdown will not stop as it needs to run its course and will slowly wind down.  The child will likely need help trying to regain his/her composure.

It’s a difficult part of living with autism, and most parents that do, know exactly what it feels like.  It’s also one of the most common times that, as a parent, bystanders offer their so-called parenting advice.  If you see a parent struggling with these types of behaviours, most times, the best thing you can do is just move on.  Standing and staring or offering your ‘advice’ doesn’t help the situation and, in the heat of the moment, you may end up getting some advice of your own.  Though parents of children on the spectrum generally have a thick skin, it still hurts when others criticize our children or our parenting skills.