“Is This a Meltdown or a Tantrum?” Here Are the Subtle Differences to Look For…

At first glance, a child kicking and screaming on the floor may look like someone who just wants attention. But look closer. For caretakers of people with autism, recognizing the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is instrumental in knowing the best way to handle this type of behavioral issue.

Meltdowns are involuntary reactions to over-stimulation (whether cognitive or sensory), while tantrums are voluntary reactions in order to manipulate someone.

Recognizing the difference is key to handling your approach. When your child is having a meltdown, no one is in control, and it can feel terrifying to everyone involved. The good news is that there are still ways to help you both get through it. You can learn what his triggers are and develop methods to help keep him calm; ideally, as your child gets older, he will be able to better manage his own meltdowns and they will become less frequent.

How to determine a meltdown:


  • Where is your child looking? A child having a temper tantrum wants a reaction from you, and will look at you to make sure you are paying attention. A child having a meltdown does not see if you’re watching, and does not care how you react.
  • Are they aware of the social situation they are in? Similar to the differences stated above, a child having a tantrum will try to use the situation for his/her benefit. A child having a meltdown is detached from the social situation and uninterested in the reactions of people around them.
  • Are they considering their own safety? A child having a temper tantrum will typically make sure they don’t get hurt, or if they are self-injurious, they may hurt themselves while making sure you are watching. A child having a meltdown does not care about the safety of anyone around them, including himself.
  • When does the behavior stop? For a child throwing a tantrum, once his needs are met he will calm down quickly. For a child experiencing a meltdown, the reaction may take a while to stop — even if the need is met. After a certain point, nothing may seem to calm the child until the meltdown has run its course.
  • Who is in control? During a tantrum, the child seems to be in control, even if he is pretending he is not. During a meltdown, it can feel like no one is in control — the meltdown has taken over.

What can you do to curb a meltdown?


Some people feel that there is little they can do during a meltdown — that it just has to run its course. However, just because a child’s reaction is involuntary doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do before or during the meltdown to help the situation, even in small ways. This is especially important in public places, as you want to be able to run your errands without having to abruptly leave the store or make a big scene. Here are some tips to help your child on the spectrum handle a meltdown.

  • Learn the triggers. Observe your child during a meltdown, and be aware of the situation right before it happens. Does your child space out briefly right before the meltdown? Is it triggered by specific lighting, sounds, or people? What are the signals?
  • Avoid injury. Remove them from an area where they can harm themselves or cause harm to others, like areas with glass or easily thrown objects.
  • Try to comfort them. What comforts them during the meltdown? Perhaps its deep pressure, a rocking chair, a favorite toy, or a swing.
  • Rely on previously established behavioral cues. If you have worked with them on understanding consequences when they are calm, use those same words during a meltdown. Talk to them in soothing tones. Be reassuring. However, only try to reason with them if the methods have been practiced before — otherwise, talking to them will just contribute to their over-stimulation.
  • Avoid busy public places — when you can. Meltdowns can be common in public, because of the inherent sensory overload. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes you’re going to have to bring your child with you into a public place.
  • If possible, bring along a third party. They can help you manage your errands effectively and serve as a helping hand if you have to leave a store because of a meltdown.
  • Have a plan of action in place for ways to leave the area quickly if necessary.
    • Talk to the managers when you arrive about your child’s needs. Discuss the possibility of leaving your items and coming back later or getting the check immediately after you order your meal.
    • Make the trips short.
    • Actively involve them in the errand. Giving them tasks may help them stay focused and prevent them from getting overstimulated by their surroundings.
    • Give your child small rewards for proper behavior throughout the trip.
  • Pick your battles. If what your child wants is fairly inconsequential and can prevent a full down meltdown, consider giving in — it’s a small price to pay for avoiding a huge ordeal. If it is something big and unattainable that the child wants, try distracting him with something else, or pull out another favorite toy or food that you brought with you.
  • Plan behavioral consequences ahead of time. Know in advance what is excusable behavior and what will need to be addressed and disciplined in public.


Check out this video of a father and son grocery shopping, and learn what has worked for them. Noah used to hate grocery shopping, but by working with a third party, using simple instructions, and planning ahead, their grocery trips became more successful!

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