If you’re a parent of a neurotypical child, you’ve surely experienced the temper tantrums that come along with denying your child that candy bar in the grocery aisle, or (gasp!) making them wear the Sesame Street t-shirt instead of the preferred dinosaur t-shirt!
If you’re a parent of a child with autism, it’s less likely that you can predict what will cause behavioral and emotional breakdowns from day to day, situation to situation, environment to environment.
It is important to recognize the differences between how these behaviors are characterized: tantrums versus meltdowns. They are not the same and cannot be addressed in the same way.
A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child is denied what they want to have or what they want to do.
Parents observe many tantrums during the “terrible twos”. This occurs when young children are developing problem solving skills and beginning to assert their independence. In fact, this “terrible twos” stage is typically experienced between 12 months through 4 years old! When you look at why temper tantrums occur at this stage, it is important to consider typical development and why toddlers are so easily frustrated:
Emerging desire to become independent, but limited motor skills and cognitive skills (planning, organization, execution) make it impossible to actually BE independent.
Emerging, developing language skills make communicating wants/needs frustrating.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain has not yet developed - this is the brain center responsible for emotional regulation and social behavior - so they do not have the ability to regulate!
Toddlers are developing an understanding of their world, and it’s often anxiety producing. This anxiety and lack of control often results in tantrums when it all gets to be too much to manage.
A hallmark of a tantrum is that the behavior will usually persist if the child gains attention for his behavior, but will subside when ignored. When children tantrum, they continue to be in control of their behavior and can adjust the level of the tantrum based on the feedback they receive from adults around them. The tantrums will resolve when the child either gets what he wants or when he realizes that his outburst will not result in getting his way. When parents “give in” to tantrum outbursts, children are more likely to repeat the behavior the next time they are denied what they want or need.
Children who exhibit frequent tantrum outbursts have difficulty regulating emotions associated with anxiety and anger. They can be impulsive in their reactions and, if not addressed appropriately, persistent outbursts (maladaptive responses to problems/not getting his way) can result in social-emotional difficulties as they get older.
A meltdown is when the child loses control over his behavior and can only be calmed down by a parent, or when he reaches the point of exhaustion.
Meltdowns are reactions to feeling overwhelmed and are often seen as a result of sensory overstimulation. Tantrums can lead to meltdowns so it can be hard to tell the difference between the two outbursts (and respond appropriately) if you’re not attuned to your child’s sensory signals. For more information on sensory processing, check out Harkla’s article here.
When a person with autism experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. It’s a physiological "traffic jam" in your central nervous system and the sensory overstimulation is not unlike a maladaptive response to an actual traffic jam. We’ve all had the experience of happily driving to our destination, cruising down the highway singing along to our favorite song, when all of a sudden traffic comes to a dead stop. Now, instead of comfortably cruising (our expectation for the situation), you’re at a standstill surrounded by imposing big trucks, offensive exhaust fumes, blaring horns, and blazing hot sun peeking through your windows. The anxiety of the situation is compounded by the sensations you’re experiencing and, all of a sudden, the music in your own car is too much to bear (sensory overload). The last thing you want is to be stuck in your car in that traffic jam - you want out! But you can’t go anywhere… the typical response at this point is agitation and frustration. Maybe you shut off the radio, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths to calm down (adaptive response). OR maybe you just can’t handle it and have a road rage outburst (maladaptive response)!
In times of anxiety and stress, the sympathetic part of your Autonomic Nervous System produces cortisol hormones and triggers a “fight or flight response.” When people with autism or sensory processing dysfunction experience sensory overstimulation, they are unable to regulate the sensory inputs from their environment and their bodies perceive these inputs as threats. While the road rage analogy may seem extreme, it is important to view these sensory meltdowns as physiological responses and not controllable behavioral reactions. You cannot expect logical, rational responses to sensory situations when your body is perceiving those situations as threatening. Keeping this in mind, the strategies for managing meltdowns are much different than those of managing temper tantrums.