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Autistic Meltdown or Temper Tantrum? How to tell the Difference

Autistic Meltdown

If you were to ask any parent of an Autistic child what they thought the truest introduction into the life of Autism is many would say the sometimes-brutal launch of a severe meltdown. Meltdowns are daunting, discouraging, arduous, and at times embarrassing.


First things first, a meltdown is not a temper tantrum. They are two completely different things. They are often confused and to an outsider they may look the same. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a temper tantrum. We’ve had our child have one or witnessed one. But what if what you are witnessing is actually an Autistic child in the midst of a horrible meltdown? Let’s look at the differences between the two.

Temper Tantrums

When we hear the phrase “Temper Tantrum” we all have a visual image of a child on the floor, holding their breath or screaming their heads off. But each tantrum is different according to the child’s style. One thing is for sure- tantrums are a way to control. What you are observing during a tantrum is nothing more than a power play by a child who hasn’t advanced enough to play an internal game of politics.

No matter where you are when you witness a temper tantrum you are left with the impression that the parents were being manipulated, and that’s because they were. Tantrums are simply a way for a child to get what they want. But how can you tell the difference? There are a few keys to look for when it comes to both.

Keys that you are dealing with a Temper Tantrum

  • Occasionally looking around to see if anyone around them is reacting to their behavior
  • Being given the feeling that the child is in complete control of the situation
  • The child using social situations to their advantage during the tantrum
  • The child is likely to take precautions to assure they do not harm themselves
  • Being able to pick out that the child is throwing the tantrum in order to achieve a specific goal or want
  • Tantrum stops as soon as the goal is achieved

A child having a temper tantrum is aware of what’s going on around them throughout the tantrum. They may even change up their strategy to more readily achieve their end goal. Meltdowns are different.

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Meltdowns are in fact neurological, not emotional. They are products of different configurations in the child’s brain mixing up with the hypersensitivity of their nerves. While temper tantrums often stem from anger, meltdowns often do not; and, conventional anger control techniques do not always work with a meltdown once it has started. Meltdowns often come from overstimulation or changes to routine/schedule.

As a meltdown progresses the Autistic individual tends to raise their voice to an elevated level gradually. As it evolves they sometimes start to get exceedingly frustrated and they subsequently lose their ability to convey their frustrations. A great deal of time in children the child will script during a meltdown or turn violent. As a child ages their meltdowns often change into more outbursts than prolonged, hours long events. Like with temper tantrums, there are keys to look for to distinguish that your child is having a meltdown.

Keys that your child is having a meltdown

-The child does not look around to see if anyone is reacting to their behavior, nor do they care if they are
-The child has no interest in whether you are in a social setting or not, they do not use social settings to their advantage
-They do not consider their own safety during a meltdown, or the safety of others
-They convey the feeling that no one is in control, not even them
-Meltdowns normally continue like they are moving on their own accord, winding down slowly on their own time

The problem is that the feeling of a loss of control takes over your child and they lose self-control, it spirals out of hand from there at times. During a meltdown the Autistic individual typically needs you there to help them calm down. Per IanCommunity.org, The stresses that we parents feel because of meltdowns associated with Autism holds the second highest percentage of all parental stressors. Meltdowns are one of the most important topics to be discussed when talking about autism. Not only do meltdowns include issues like the child’s safety, there’s also the issue of the parents’ safety and the safety of anyone around the child.

The mis-knowledge out there about meltdowns also raises the question as to how much awareness is being spread. Not many people outside off the Autism community really know anything particularly relevant to the lives we actually live. The sad part is, with the prevalence numbers where they are everyone should be making themselves aware of the plights of these children and their parent’s everyday struggles.