Some of you might already know that my son is autistic. My children’s series, The Independence Series, was created out of frustration that there were not more resources available for parents of special needs children that were considered lower-functioning. My hope is that through those books, children with special needs will learn self-help and daily living skills, and typically developing children will learn more about autism, so they hopefully won’t feel uneasy if they are around an autistic child.
In an attempt to promote autism acceptance, I created a series of blog posts to address some questions I normally get regarding autism and raising a child with special needs. One of the things that many people are confused about is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, and what a meltdown actually is. Hopefully, I can help you to understand meltdowns a little better today.
What is a meltdown?
What does “meltdown” mean? A meltdown and a tantrum are the same thing, right? Wrong. A meltdown is absolutely NOT the same thing as a tantrum. For one thing, there is usually a negative consequence for a tantrum, and there shouldn’t be a negative consequence for a meltdown.
When a child is having a tantrum, it is usually because of a tangible, or to put it simply, because they want something they can’t have, or they want to do something that they can’t do. A perfect example of a tantrum is when a child wants a candy bar at the grocery store and when they are told “no”, they begin to scream, possibly hit or kick, etc. Hopefully, there will be some sort of negative consequence here, even if it is as simple as bringing them out to the car to calm down.
When a child is having a meltdown, it is usually because they are overstimulated. What does “overstimulated” mean? The dictionary defines it as “stimulate physiologically or mentally to an excessive degree.” Picture someone rubbing ice on your face, shaking you, rubbing sandpaper on your skin and blowing a blowhorn right next to you ear. How would you feel? You would be overstimulated. There’s so much going on at once and you can’t process it all, it’s just too much. You might start screaming to make it stop or fight against the people who were doing all of that to you.
A child with autism or sensory processing disorder (more on sensory processing disorder later) can get overstimulated easier than a child that is not autistic. My son often gets overstimulated if we have the lights on in the living room and the television on and we are talking. When an autistic child is screaming and crying, or flailing around because of a meltdown (remember, a meltdown is caused from being overstimulated), it’s important not to yell at them, but to speak calmly to them and try to remove them from the situation as quickly as possible.
A child doesn’t ask to be overstimulated, does not enjoy it, and it is not their fault. However, when a child is having a tantrum, it is their fault (and yes, autistic children do have tantrums occasionally). A child willingly starts throwing a tantrum, usually in protest to try to get what they want. A child goes into a meltdown and may start screaming because they can’t handle something in their environment and they don’t know how to cope. In most cases, as an autistic child grows and (hopefully) gains more intellectually functioning, they will be able to use different ways besides screaming to communicate something is bothering them.
I hope this post helped you to understand meltdowns a little better. I think that more adults would be understanding of certain things if they just understood what was going on. I’d like to invite you to come back next week, when I will be talking about Sensory Processing Disorder.