The Five Tips to tell tantrums from meltdown.
- What was the A-ntecedent of the violent behaviour?
The tantrum is nearly always ABOUT SOMETHING. The person/child’s request has been denied, and the child is expressing their frustration. (To a stranger, it looks like a child’s means of achieving their goals. The stranger might be even correct. It doesn’t mean that the child is manipulative and evil! Remember, autism means that emotional regulation may not be as robust as that of NTs. A child has lower frustration threshold, too. It is OUR role to help the child learn the skill of emotional regulation and self-control: and we will!)
A prolonged exposure to either high number of stimuli, or high power of stimulie, or both. Sometimes, a tell — Meltdown. It doesn’t have an identifiable reason, looking from outside.
2. B-ehaviour during the violent episode:
Well-coordinated movement with a specific purpose. Speech – more than 2 word sentences. May express anger that is aimed at a particular person(s) (this is usually whoever is “responsible” for the tantrum, from the tantruming person’s point of view). Low risk of accidental injury — tantrum.
Uncoordinated, aimless movement. No directed, purposeful violence. Limited speech. High risk of accidental injury — meltdown.
3. Is the child C — ognizant of the behaviour?
Yes. – tantrum.
No. – meltdown.
4. D — eath of the episode – if you are uncomfortable with the word “death” (my Mum is!), substitute “discontinuation” for “death”.
A temper tantrum can be discontinued fairly promptly, once the aim has been achieved. It may vary in intensity, mellowing out (e.g., when the audience disappears from the scene) and growing stronger again after that. If you “stood your ground” & stuck to your guns, the episode could go on for a while. Sometimes, they go on for such a long time, they require help to terminate the tantrum. Here, a SENSORY REWARD and/or the SPECIAL INTEREST (aka Fixation, aka Passionate Interest, aka Obsession, aka Focus Object or Focus Subject – these last two are my personal contribution to the field – [feigning bowing, then curtsying]) may be enormously helpful in switching the perseveration behaviour of the child.
The autistic meltdown episode cannot be discontinued at will, e.g., by talking to the child. As a rule, the recommendation is to ENSURE THE SAFETY of the child and MINIMISE ALL SENSORY INPUT/STIMULATION. The child is unable to communicate with the world at that particular moment, apart from the fact that his meltdown is a major attempt at communication – subconsciously, of course. NO HUGS/HOLDING THE CHILD. NO QUESTIONS. NO TELLING HIM YOU LOVE HIM. The best way to show and share your love is to stay at a safe distance. In limited cases, the upset is so great or the tantrum length so significant that the kid may literally go from the tantrum into meltdown.
5. What is the E-nvironment of the episode?
Tantrum — any environment.
Meltdown — sensory-rich environment or anything breaking rules & routines.