Could It Be A Meltdown?

As a Mum to someone on the autistic spectrum, I have witnessed several meltdowns over the years. To onlookers these often look like temper tantrums. However, anyone who has either experienced a meltdown or supported someone through one, will know that they have nothing to do with having a temper tantrum. With both a meltdown and a temper tantrum there may be crying, shouting, screaming, kicking, biting, hitting, etc. So what is the difference between them? Let’s look at just five areas where they differ.

Temper Tantrum

A temper tantrum is defined as “A sudden period of uncontrolled anger”. There are several things that point to it being a temper tantrum rather than a meltdown:

  • Age – Most temper tantrums (although not all) are experienced by children aged between 1-5 years old. Usually after the age of 5 most children will outgrow tantrums as their methods of communication improve.
  • Purpose – A tantrum will occur if something hasn’t gone as expected. This may be because the child did not get something they wanted, a toy that has broken, having to go to bed when they don’t want to, etc. Tantrums can also occur if the child feels that they’ve not had enough attention recently. It’s a case of any attention is better than none!
  • Audience – If you watch a child having a temper tantrum you will see that every now and again they will check to see if anyone is watching. If they’re not, you may find that the volume of the screams increases significantly. Temper tantrums really need an audience if they’re going to be successful!
  • Control – The child is aware of what they’re doing and may have some control over it. Although they may hit, bite or kick others, they usually protect themselves.
  • Time – Tantrums tend to be short lived. Once the child has got what it wants or feels that the tantrum just isn’t getting them anywhere it will usually stop.


A meltdown is defined as “An occasion when a person becomes extremely upset and is not able to deal with a problem or situation”. An autistic person may have a meltdown as a result of too many demands placed on them, changes to plans and routines, sensory overload, etc.

  • Age – Meltdowns are not limited to children. Children, adolescents and adults will all have meltdowns. They’re not something that disappear when a person reaches age 18.
  • Purpose – A meltdown does not have a purpose. They occur when a person has really got to the point of not being able to cope anymore with the situation that they are in. It is a genuine cry of distress.
  • Audience – A meltdown will happen regardless of whether there is anyone watching or not. The person is not trying to get anyone’s attention. They are reacting to being overloaded.
  • Control – When a meltdown happens, the person has no control over it. This means that they may hurt themselves or someone else during it, even though they don’t mean to.
  • Time – Meltdowns aren’t goal driven so it won’t stop when the trigger of the meltdown has gone. Meltdowns can last a long time. The longest one my son has had is just over an hour, but meltdowns can be longer or shorter than this. This is exhausting for him (and me, if I’m supporting him).

As you can see meltdowns are quite different to a temper tantrum. This video explains a bit more about what they’re like. Meltdowns can happen anywhere – in shops, at work, on public transport, at church, at home, etc. What can you do if you see someone experiencing one?

  • Don’t stare – Never stare at someone who is having a meltdown – it really doesn’t help! Although the person experiencing the meltdown may not notice, anyone supporting them will and they will feel judged, as though in some way they should be able to stop the meltdown. If the person having the meltdown does notice, it will make them feel worse than they already do.
  • Move – If it’s possible, try and encourage the person to move to a quieter place. This takes them away from the situation that has triggered the meltdown. It also takes them away from anyone who may be staring at them. If they don’t feel able to move, try to remove the trigger, if at all possible. This may be turning music off, turning lighting down, moving people away, etc.
  • Ask – Ask either the person or whoever is with them what you can do to help. Be prepared that the person experiencing the meltdown may not be able to reply straight away. If they ask to be left alone, respect them and do as they have asked.
  • Keep input low – Keep all input to a minimum.The person is already experiencing sensory overload, so really doesn’t need any other input. Other than asking what they need you to do, don’t talk to them unless they say it’s okay. I know when people are struggling it’s often the case that a reassuring hand is placed on them, but in the case of a meltdown this will cause more sensory input and really won’t be helpful.
  • Prevent harm – If during the meltdown the person is causing harm either to themselves or others then do try to intervene. Encourage bystanders to move away and move any item that could be thrown towards them. If the person is hurting themselves try to stop them, although this may not always be possible until the meltdown subsides.
  • Bring refreshments! – This is probably best left to when the meltdown has finished, but a drink and a snack is welcome as meltdowns are tiring and energy zapping. If there is someone supporting the person, don’t forget them either, as they will likely be quite tired too.
  • Don’t blame – Don’t blame the person having the meltdown. They really can’t help it and they don’t like meltdowns any more than you do!
  • Check – Once the meltdown is over do check to see if there’s anything that is needed. I know my son likes to listen to music on his iPad for a short while afterwards to help keep him calm and refocus his mind. Other people may want to use some fidget toys. It’s also nice to send a quick text message a few days later to check how things are – it shows you care.

If I’m honest, I wish that my son would never have another meltdown as they’re not very pleasant for him. However, I know that won’t happen, but having people around who can understand and support is crucial. I hope that this post has helped explain some things that can be done to help.


Image rights © Author’s own

Dictionary definition of ‘tantrum‘ and ‘meltdown‘ from the Online Cambridge Dictionary

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