Is it a Meltdown or a Tantrum?

Written by: Dr. Penelope Chavez-Frigon, Psy. D.

I recently completed a seminar on Autism, specifically on evaluating and managing meltdowns.  I found it very interesting that far too many people, including professions interchange the terms meltdowns and tantrums.  They are actually vastly different.  So, I pose two questions: Can a meltdown turn in to a tantrum? And can a tantrum turn into a meltdown?  The answers are no and yes, respectively.  What are the main differences between the two? 

A meltdown is completely out of a person’s control and is not something voluntary.  A person (particularly an individual with autism) cannot control a meltdown.  Once a meltdown happens, it has to run its complete course.  Cognitive functioning/cognitive awareness is completely lost during a meltdown.  It is not purposeful, it is not seeking to manipulate a situation, the individual is not trying to get something out of it.  It is not behavioral and behavioral modification is not going to work.  There are generally visual cues and often reasons for a meltdown.  Maybe the individual has a sensory overload.  Possibly there is a surprise or a change in a routine.  Maybe the person encounters a problem and has no clue how to solve it.  For an individual about to experience a meltdown, it may very well feel like the end of the world is about to happen.  The person who is experiencing the meltdown is experiencing a primitive fight or flight reaction.  Given this, unless there is an imminent safety concern, it is best not to attempt to restrain to restrict physical moment.    After the meltdown has finished and the individual has been able to calm down, you will see genuine remorse and possible shame.  Namely, the individual may ask questions such as, do you still love me?, will you still be my friend?, are you mad at me?

A tantrum is completely within the realm of control.  It is behaviorally motivated and in fact, it is a learned behavior.  The individual who is having a tantrum is seeking out something.  There is an end goal, namely to get what they want.  There is no significant cognitive impairment during a tantrum.  The individual tantruming knows what he/she is doing and will continue to tantrum until their desire is satisfied or their tantrum is behaviorally modified.  At the end of the tantrum, it is not likely that the individual in question will express genuine remorse.  I posed the question, above, “can a tantrum turn into a meltdown?”  Why is the answer, yes?  Well an individual could start out having a tantrum because he/she wants something, but then cognitive functioning is lost, or the individually becomes neurologically overwhelmed and then a meltdown starts. 





Deborah Lipsky (2018) Autism Spectrum Meltdowns: Effective Interventions for Sensory, Executive Functioning, and Social-Emotional Communication. (digital seminar)