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Melting Down the Autistic Meltdown: Sometimes Tantrums aren't Tantrums

Autism meltdown

The one thing that I hear from parents of autistic children the most is how frustrating their child’s meltdowns are and how humiliating it is that nobody around them seems to understand that meltdowns aren’t indicative of the parenting the child receives. Most of them would agree that the ‘baptism by fire’ of the autistic meltdown is the first true initiation into the life of an autism parent. They are scary, frustrating, and embarrassing at times.

First Things First, A Meltdown is Not the Same Thing as a Temper Tantrum

I have learned through the years that the ‘normal’ person will look at a meltdown and perceive it to be a simple temper tantrum being thrown by a brat who has a parent that can’t control them. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to an autistic child. Meltdowns require a great deal of strength from the parents in a lot of cases, they ALWAYS require a massive amount of patience, and without a doubt they require an unheard of amount of love to withstand.

Tantrums are each different according to the child’s style. They are ALWAYS a way to control and to get what they are wanting. Even if it seems the opposite, a child in the midst of a temper tantrum is ALWAYS in control of the situation.

A Child in the Midst of a Tantrum will:

• Use being in a store or at a friend’s house to their advantage
• Occasionally look around themselves to see if anyone is paying attention or reacting to what they are doing
• Throw the tantrum to achieve a goal or obtain a want. As soon as that want is met the tantrum will stop
• Take safeguards to make sure they can’t be hurt during the tantrum

A child having a tantrum is also aware of what is going on throughout the entire tantrum. It isn’t unheard of for a child to change their approach mid-tantrum in order to increase their chances of a positive outcome. My 7 year old ‘typical’ son does this during tantrums and it drives me insane! However, my autistic son has never pulled anything like that in his life.

A child in the midst of an Autistic Meltdown:

  • Does NOT look nor do they care to find out if anyone around them is reacting to their meltdown. The behavior isn’t based on everyone around them. It is based on poor impulse control and in a lot of cases if actually caused by sensory issues.
  • DOES NOT consider their own safety during the meltdown, they also do not consider the safety of anybody around them
  • Meltdowns normally continue like they are moving under their own power and accord. The wind down very slowly on their own time

(Entire lists can be found in my book “Melting Down Meltdowns: When a Tantrum Isn’t a Tantrum” By: Brooke Price)

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‘Must Know’ Information about Meltdowns as Learned by a Mother of an Autistic Child

My son has had exceptionally severe meltdowns since he was small. I have had my house destroyed because of a change in routine more times than I can count. I have had my eye socket broke by my son mid-meltdown because of a sensory processing issue. I have fought my son and held my son to protect himself and me on many different occasions. There are countless pointers I could pass on to you that I have learned over the years from research and experience. Too many to list. Here are just a few.

‘Must Know’ Facts about Meltdowns:

  • Meltdowns are in fact neurological NOT emotional. They are the result of different configurations in an autistic individual’s brain mixed with hyper-sensitivity of their nerves
  • Conventional anger management techniques do not work once a meltdown has started
  • Meltdowns are almost NEVER triggered by anger or anxiety, although anxiety can be an contributing factor
  • Punishment doesn’t work so your only weapons are compassion, preparation, and distraction.

Parenting an Autistic Child

Parenting an autistic child is like parenting NO other child on this earth. Almost every single one of our children have meltdowns. The severities of the meltdowns don’t so much decide themselves based on the autism severity as they do by age. Different age groups are more prone to having different ways of exhibiting their meltdown behavior. By age 5 my son, Zain, had started having extreme meltdowns. The meltdowns of autistic children this age hold the potential of being epic and can cause serious harm. Learning positions to protect yourself and holds to put your children in to protect them from themselves are 100% necessary in some circumstances.

We have to always be on our guard. We can’t discipline them for their behavior because it is not a temper tantrum, it is a true meltdown that our children cannot help. Your job as the parent is to learn your child’s meltdown triggers and learn how to cope with them by implementing a behavior plan with your spouse and/or anyone else charged with the care of your child.

Discipline and Meltdowns

Spanking is a big No-No when it comes to our children. Do not ever forget that spanking our children is out. I took me a long time to understand why but once I did it was a life altering realization. Autistic children do not possess the skills to understand right from wrong in a large number of cases, therefore when you spank them it is nothing but violence from their point of view. They don’t understand why you hit them (or spanked them rather). They aren’t learning anything from the spanking.

You have to learn that you can not treat your special needs child the same as you would a ‘typical’ child of their age. Most likely they are not the same age cognitively as they are physically. This is such a hard concept to get stuck in your head, I know it was for me. Zain is ten now and I sometimes have a hard time with it still. When you are looking at a 10 year old child, remembering he is only 3 in his head it is hard if only given a seconds thought.

Just try to keep in mind that temper tantrums and punishment are almost always synonymous, meltdowns and punishment are not. A lot of times you need things such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or ABA Therapy to help teach your child how to cope with their own emotions and how to work their way thru their own meltdowns. Perhaps the answer isn’t discipline to start with. Perhaps the answer to your problem with your child is a treatment of a co-morbid disorder. Chances are all the answers to the stresses you are feeling as a result of your child’s behavior are just one simple doctor’s appointment away.

Also read Piecing the Puzzle Back Together: Tips from a Mom of an Autistic Child, by Brook Price.



I agree to a certain degree but I don't agree with the entire thing. I think children who have melt downs CAN control if if they are taught from an early age. I tend to believe that (not that it's intended) but lack of controlling it is not learned because of bad parenting. I do childcare and I have a son with Autism he is 5, I also watch a child with Autism and I am teaching them to control it. I think if you allow the actions to go tooo long than it does in fact become uncontrollable. (just as a man who beats his wife, which is why you tell a woman to leave the relationship in stead of trying to seek help for the man) and if they are allowed to go uncontrolled to often than they DON'T learn to control it. My son used to have HORRIBLE meltdowns. He knocked his dresser over at 3 1/2. But now he doesn't have the problem. He knows what is coming, he removes himself or he will come to me for a big hug to calm himself. The prob. I am STILL having is his teachers teaching him how to control them AWAY from me. They are actually supporting him not understanding WHY he's being punished when he hit someone for TAKING something from him. In stead of getting to his level and TEACHING him WHAT to do they are just punishing him for hitting OR removing him. Which does no good, because the next time someone takes something from him he's a loose as to what do to. He doesn't know the RIGHT answer. He thinks HE will be punished for making the child give it back and doesn't know how to go for help. So he melts down and gets punished for that too...
"A lot of times you need things such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or ABA Therapy to help teach your child how to cope with their own emotions and how to work their way thru their own meltdowns. Perhaps the answer isn’t discipline to start with." CBT is aimed at teaching a child with autism from an early age that there are consequences to their actions and measures to take to control their behavior during meltdowns. It teaches them that their actions affect everyone around them to. She covered all that. It is more successful in higher functioning kids but it'll work for the other ones too.
I agree with some of this, but like the other commenter, not all of it. My son is 4, with classic autism, though on the higher functioning end of the spectrum. He used to have frequent meltdowns on a regular basis, which were absolutely draining for everyone involved. Lots of people suggested that I was too easy on him and too accommodating,but in reality what I was doing was watching closely to learn what was triggering those meltdowns, and how to prevent them. Once I knew what was causing them, I didn't avoid those situations, but I did work hard to prepare him for them in small doses. Social stories, youtube videos, sensory play etc, were all techniques I would use prior to exposing him to situations that may cause a meltdown. We practiced daily, and with lots of exposure, listening to my child, helping him find the words/gestures to communicate what he needs, I am proud to day that I can't remember his last meltdown. Every ASD kid is different, but meltdowns don't have to be a way of life for everyone. It takes a lot of hard work and patience, bit it is possible. I'm not sure my son will never have another meltdown, but I am happy that we are no longer tip toeing through life to avoid them. We never punished or scolded... We listened and respected his needs. And in doing so, we were able to help him realize when situations are going to be rough before he loses it. He. An now tell me in advance when something is too much for him and has the coping skills to deal with those situations. Meltdowns do not have to be part of life forever.
I have a situation. One of my Au kiddos at school seems to fit both categories! Therefore, I don't know which it is! He sometimes looks around and ask for us to help him (he is a little verbal,most exolalic, but asks for help when thrashing on the ground) he attempts to injure us and really doesn't care if he hurts himself either. It typically stems from extreme OCD like behaviors su h as wanting to walk a certain direction when someone is in the way or he wants to do something by himself or occasionally it's because he wants something (ie. Take as long as possible to finish he snack when lunch is already over.) I cannot tell the best way to handle his extreme behaviors and constant screaming at the top of his lungs ( and boy does he have a set of lung on him). PLEASE PLEASE HELP!!
Dear An, I usually don't answer back to comments on my posts but yours touched my heart. Let me start off by saying that I am not a medical professional. My advice is to first keep a meltdown diary in order to he yourself keep track of the triggers. In this diary keep track of what triggered the meltdown, how your child reacted, and how long it lasted. In addition, if it is stimmed from OCD behavior it is kinda hard to punish for. In situations like this myself and most people I know use calm down areas for our kids. An area, like a refridge box, makes a great safe place for our kids to express their frustrations. After you have better figured out how to tell the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum the easier it'll be to handle the situation. Most of the time punishments are not the path to take. I hope that this helps you in some way. Good luck to you momma.