Tantrums vs. Meltdowns
Many parents of autistic children treat meltdowns and tantrums the same although they are quite different and they need to be managed differently. Tantrums are emotional outbursts that serve a certain function. For example, a child might throw a tantrum because her mother did not let her get ice cream. Even though the child is having a tantrum they are in full control of their body and mind and are trying to use their tantrum behaviors to get something or to get rid of something. If a child is given what they want, their tantrum typically stops right away. Also, a hallmark of a tantrum is that this behavior continues as long as the child gets attention, but subsides if they are ignored.
Meltdowns, on the other hand, are involuntary responses to a nervous system overload. They are a result of overwhelm or overstimulation. Still, tantrums can lead to meltdowns, so it can be hard to tell the difference between these two outbursts sometimes. Autism meltdowns happen after the central nervous system of a child responds to a perceived or real threat to their life. An autistic child who is having a meltdown is not typically trying to get something. Instead, they simply are not able to control their intense emotions and tension and even their typical ways to calm themselves such as stimming lose their power in autism meltdowns. A child who is in the middle of e meltdown is unable to respond to typical behavioral calming techniques that can work wonders on tantrums.
What is causing meltdowns?
Many core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are related to sensory processing challenges. For example, autistic children may have a hard time processing load sounds of flashing lights and frequently see them as a threat to their survival. These processes happen at the level of a brain stem, a lower part of the brain. When this happens, the information does not travel effectively to the higher brain areas such as the limbic system and neocortex, which typically analyze the meaning of sensory stimuli and help regulate the emotions that we link to such stimuli. In other words: the child feels out of control and unable to calm down.
Calming and Recovery Techniques
Meltdowns continue until the individual feels safe again and as a parent of an autistic individual, you can help your child with three steps to regulate, relate, and reason.
During meltdowns, when the emotional part of the brain takes over an autistic individual may not be able to follow logic anymore. This means that your explanations or instructions are unlikely to be effective. Typically, you should teach your child how to use self-regulating tools such as stimming, jumping, or breathing techniques when they are calm so that they can use such body-based regulation tools easily when they get to this stage. When the child is having a meltdown, however, such guidance is typically useless. You can only remind your child to begin to use what they have learned before. Even then, you should remember to use as few words as possible. Being as calm as possible doesn’t always work. Instead, you can start modeling them if they stim, or jump for example. If your child has had plenty of practice before, you might be able to show them how to practice mindful breathing. If there is a chance that your child might hurt themselves or others give them space for self-regulation by taking them to a safe place where there is nothing that they could use to hurt themselves or others. If your child has meltdowns frequently, you might want to prepare a safe, calming area for them in your home.
Once your child has calmed down a bit, let them know that they are not alone by using words, or touch. You might want to hum their favorite song or place a weighted blanket on them. Be empathetic, and supportive, and validate their experience instead of saying that there is nothing to be afraid of. Keep in mind, that your child may feel embarrassed or frustrated after losing control of themselves.
Once the situation is over, try to discuss with your child what happened or why it happened if they are verbal. You should not give your child a lecture or punish them for the things that they might have broken. Remember that they have experienced something deeply traumatizing and they really need to rest and feel safe right now. After a while, your child might be able to explain to you why they felt threatened. If they are able to express such thoughts try to use this information to avoid such situations in the future. Still, accept that in many instances your child might not be able to explain why they felt the way they did. After all, meltdowns are caused by lower-level brain functions that are not easy to put into words.
Prevention Strategies and Treatments
If your child is unable to explain why they felt unsafe in certain situations, you may have to start collecting data about their meltdown behaviors. Write down at least what happened right before the meltdown, during it, and after it. Such data can help you understand signs that lead up to meltdowns. Such data can help you determine what sensory issues or comorbid conditions may cause meltdowns. Once the context is better understood, you can begin to practice calming techniques before meltdowns occur and teach your child how to seek help before the situation gets overwhelming for them.