To begin this article, I’d like to establish the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. A tantrum is a fit which stems from bad behavior, while a meltdown is an emotional response to being overwhelmed. A tantrum is usually a method for a person to get their way, while a meltdown is a way of showing that the person is overwhelmed with their situation or surroundings.
A meltdown occurs when an autistic person loses behavioral control and it is an expression of such. Causes of this loss can range from a sensory overload to something as “small” as a change in routine. I put “small” in quotes because it seems small to an outsider, but is a big deal to the autistic individual.
Meltdowns are terrifying and exhausting for the individual going through them. They seem horrifying and strange to an outsider watching, but it’s even scarier being the one experiencing them. Just like many other parts of ASD, they can manifest in many different ways such as crying/screaming, hitting, throwing things, stimming, kicking, or biting. These are just examples and not every person will show all of these. For example, when I have a meltdown I cry and scream, hit myself, and rock back and forth. Another autistic person may space out and stim and bite themself. It all depends on the individual. Learn what your loved one does and needs during a meltdown personally.
There are many approaches to resolving a meltdown. The golden rule is to approach the person calmly and only use simple phrases and commands. Telling them something generic like “Calm down” can only induce further anxiety, and if you get upset as well, it will make the situation escalate. The best thing is to ask them what they need first. If they can’t tell you, offer them cold water, their stim items, and help them calm themself through breathing exercises. Having a meltdown is often not something an individual can pull themself out of.
Be aware that they are likely terrified and feel terrible and they need assistance to get away from that. Respecting that and their boundaries is the best and most helpful thing you can do for them.
Moving on, tantrums are often caused by the person not getting their way or not receiving the attention they wish for. The best way to deal with these is to address it, step away, and then fix it. Giving in immediately only teaches them that they can throw a tantrum to get their way and will only harm them and you.
So say your child wants a toy at the store and you say no. She may lie on the floor and scream and kick to get her way. The best way to handle this is to tell her, “I see you’re upset, and I’m sorry you’re upset. When you calm down, we can talk about it.” and then step away. Of course, if you’re in public this would mean just stepping back, but at home you could even go into another room. Fixing it only happens when the child talks about their feelings and why they feel that way. This can end in them getting their way, but it has to happen after the process of resolution has occurred.
The third type of emotional response common in autistic people is called a shutdown. Think of it like your computer shutting down from too many programs running. When an autistic person gets overstimulated, their brain has a harder time processing it than an allistic (non-autistic) person. They are similar to meltdowns in the sense that they are caused by over-stimulation. They differ from a meltdown in the sense that they are more quiet. Shutdowns are much less noticeable than meltdowns, and are often taken as just being antisocial.
Shutdowns are commonly presented by the person completely shutting themselves away (either mentally or physically) from the outside world. They most likely could become unresponsive (nonverbal) and withdraw themselves from any physical contact. They may experience dissociation, but not all autistics will. It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what a shutdown looks like because it’s so personal.
The best way you can help someone experiencing a shutdown is to help them find a quiet, calm, safe space and avoid overwhelming them with too many questions or comments. Oftentimes these questions/comments can worsen the shutdown because of the sensory processing it takes to listen and respond to them. You should ask them what kind of things they need during a shutdown, as well, before they have one. This can go for meltdowns as well. Being mindful and helping your autistic loved one stay safe is the most important thing.
Here is a wonderful video on shutdowns: https://youtu.be/3WIiL8vBjq0
And one on meltdowns: https://youtu.be/FhUDyarzqXE