As a parent of a nearly 6 year old autistic girl, I can personally say from experience that one of the harder things for me, personally, is identifying the difference between a tantrum or a meltdown. Especially since these two behaviors need to be treated totally differently.
A tantrum is happening as a result of things not going her way and needs to be disciplined. Parenting 101, we all know this, right? Basic stuff. Important to make sure that I raise a decent human who isn’t entitled and will play well in society with others.
A meltdown is different. It can look like it’s happening because something didn’t go her way (but it’s actually because things didn’t go as she planned they would) but the basic gist of it is that she doesn’t have the coping skills to handle that things aren’t working as she expected them to. Discipline isn’t the way to handle this. She needs to know that I am here to support her in whatever way she needs.
From the outside, this can look the same, if you don’t look too closely. Screaming, crying, flailing limbs. Generally unwillingness to engage in questions.
Now, I will add in the general caveat of this is my kid, and the standard “if you’ve met an autistic person, you’ve met one person with autism” statement before I go too much further. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that some of these methods can be applied to other autistic children to help differentiate.
For Little Miss, when she is throwing a tantrum, usually I can ask her yes or no questions and get answers. Depending on just how upset she is, I’ll probably only get “no” but she does respond. If we’re in full meltdown mode, we often won’t get any response at all, maybe just head shakes. I will sometimes ask if she wants some quiet time in her room by herself, regardless of if I have identified if this is a tantrum or a meltdown yet, and she’ll either say yes/no or nod or shake her head, and we’ll proceed from there.
If she wants time in her room, then I’ll take her to her room and give her a hug and tell her I’ll check on her in a few minutes. After about 3-5 minutes by herself, I’ll go in and check on her, and she’ll usually be back in a better mood. At this point, if it worked, it doesn’t really matter if it was a tantrum or a meltdown if she’s feeling better, we’ll talk it out and move forward.
If she didn’t want time in her room, that’s fine too! I’ll ask her if she wants a hug. And move on to other relevant questions based on what’s been going on (did the dog get her toy, daddy not listen to her, neighbor kid break her toy, etc). If nothing is working at all I might stop talking and just stay around/near her but stop actively giving her attention.
Like pretty much all child behaviorists will tell you, I have found that when I stop actively giving her attention, if we are dealing with a tantrum, then the tantrum will stop entirely. She will start trying to re-engage me with play. Once she regains my attention, she will start up the tantrum again, and then I know how to proceed.
If it’s a meltdown, the removal of attention won’t do anything to stop the behavior, because she’s struggling and the attention wasn’t what she was seeking. Once I have confirmed that this is a meltdown, it’s time to start trying to isolate what caused the meltdown. This can be tricky sometimes, as it isn’t always the most straightforward thing to an adult mind, but once you find what it was, you can start coming up with coping mechanisms.
One of the most recent gigantic meltdowns that we had in our house was because our wee lass had made plans with some store bought cupcakes in our house that she hadn’t told us. There were three left in the house and she had already assigned them to each of us: there was a specific cupcake that was hers, one for me, and one for her daddy. We also had some cookies in the house, and she wanted to offer a cookie to the neighbor kid’s mom, but daddy misunderstood and gave the neighbor mom a cupcake.
Not just any cupcake. Little Miss’s cupcake. Now Little Miss’s plans of evening cupcake time with Momma and Daddy were ruined because there weren’t enough cupcakes for all three of us and only Momma and Daddy had cupcakes and hers was gone. She was absolutely distraught.
It took a good chunk of time to figure out what about this situation was so hard for her. Daddy was willing to give up his cupcake for her, she wasn’t going to have to go without a cupcake. We had offered the neighbor mom the cupcake already, so it would have been pretty rude to not give it to her. We explained all of this to Little Miss, but she was still so completely upset.
Quite suddenly I realized that it wasn’t even about the cupcake at all. She just wanted to have us all sit down and have a little time together with the cupcakes. Her plan was for family time, and since the cupcake was gone it meant that family time was also gone. This broke her whole heart into a million tiny pieces and she had a full blown meltdown.
So, we talked it over, I gave her a million hugs, and we made a different plan for family time. It’s all a work in progress, but hopefully Little Miss picked up a new coping method. It won’t be her last meltdown. But with careful navigation of her big emotions we can help her navigate them and learn to express them better.