Autism, Meltdowns, & Tantrums

I’m going to be very straightforward in saying one of my BIGGEST pet peeves is when parents of typical children claim they know the struggles of an autistic child’s meltdown or tantrum…

The logical part of my brain realizes they’re just trying to commiserate, BUT a typical child’s meltdown is NOT the same as a child‘s with autism.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying any meltdown or tantrum. In the moment, they are tortuous regardless of the intensity or length.

My son is a typical child and every bit of a 3-year-old. He is precious and hilarious most of the time, THEN the demon inside rears his ugly head. I mean, how dare I take MY phone away from him. I’m simply the worst. He has quite the tantrums, but they are different from my daughter’s.

Please, let me explain why.


Tantrums are an angry or frustrated outburst, that can typically be shaped with positive reinforcement or a reward system.

While autistic meltdowns are a reaction to being overwhelmed. They are triggered by sensory, emotional, and information overload and may occur throughout a lifetime. For someone with autism, when they reach a point of overload, or even just too much unpredictability, it can trigger a variety of external behaviors similar to a tantrum, such as crying, yelling, or lashing out. OR, it can trigger a complete shut down and withdrawal.

Brynn, like all autistic children, experience classic tantrums, but meltdowns are more apparent.

A person with autism has ZERO control over their meltdowns and will not benefit from the normal measures to reduce tantrums like distraction, hugs, incentives to “behave”, or any form of disciple. That is why it’s important to determine if she’s having a tantrum or meltdown.

For Brynn, the difference is all in the length of the episode. If she is throwing a tantrum, she usually recovers quickly and I’m able to distract or entice her with a positive reinforcement. For example, this is a typical conversation in our house, “If you calm down and go potty first, THEN you can have…or do….” We have many FIRST and THEN conversations. They are very helpful in our household.

If a tantrum isn’t addressed quickly with Brynn, they often turn into an autistic meltdown, which is not as simple to remedy. These meltdowns often turn into an aggressive, loud scene, which leads me to my next point.


In a contained, controlled environment

When we are home, it’s easy. We simply guide Brynn into her room, which is a calming place for her. Her room contains just her and Pace’s bed and a sound machine. That’s it. Having zero pictures on the wall and zero toys out, help maintain a calming sensory experience. We have extra locks on the windows, so she can’t escape while taking time to calm down.

She usually spends about 5 minutes in her room. During a meltdown, I don’t necessarily wait until she’s completely calmed to intervene, but I do wait for her aggressiveness to subside. When she’s deep into her aggression, there is NO talking her down. We must separate from each other. At home, her meltdowns typically don’t last long like they used to. I’ve learned some great skills from her ABA therapists, who have taught me Brynn thrives on the physical battle. She especially thrives on the “fight” with me.

Don’t worry, I’m not actually fighting my kid. The “fight” consists of trying to keep her safe while also keeping Pace and myself safe. Therefore, we “safety-proofed” her room. I can walk away and know she can’t escape out her windows or hurt herself in any other way. We’ve adjusted her environment and taken away the physical battle which escalates her meltdowns.


In an open, uncontrollable environment:

What happens when meltdowns occur outside of the home?  It’s not as simple. I can’t count how many scenes we’ve caused with her meltdowns. Thankfully, long ago I have officially received my “IDGAF” status. Not sure what this acronym means? I’ll give you a hint, “I Don’t Give A Fu..”.

Get the picture?

To put it simply, I technically follow the same steps I do at home:

1. SAFETY. SAFETY. SAFETY. Those with autism often unintentionally hurt themselves and others during their meltdowns. It’s crucial to have a plan in place to keep them and YOU safe during one.

2. DEVELOP A CALMING ROUTINE. Having a very set and calm routine helps keep meltdowns at a minimum. Those with autism really struggle with unpredictability. We have a schedule we follow every morning leading up to school to help maintain a calming environment. Things don’t always go to plan, but it helps tremendously. Often, Brynn needs help calming down, since she expended all her energy during her meltdown. Music and/or singing is our go-to when she needs the help. We also take deep breaths together, which keeps me calm as well. Counting to 10 in a peaceful, non-disciplinary way, is another helpful tool.

Additionally, it’s helpful to have a calming routine BEFORE a meltdown. In order to do this, you must familiarize yourself in the symptoms of one. They may include an increase in stimming (I’ll explain stimming in my next post), rocking, asking to leave, or simply bolting to escape (elopement). If we understand what triggers an autistic individual, we can help prevent meltdowns…or at least lessen them.

3. MAPPING OUT THE PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR to see how escalation occurs. This also goes hand in hand in keeping everyone involved safe. For instance, Brynn likes to go for my hair. If she gets a hold of it, she pulls with all her might.

So, in order to prevent the behavior or the motivation for the behavior, I’ve become aware of it’s antecedents.

What’s an antecedent? It’s term we hear often in the autism world. It refers to what happened before a certain behavior started. An example of an antecedent leading to maladaptive behavior is when Brynn’s school bus approaches. Every morning when she sees her bus, she begins her attack. She practically climbs my body to get to my hair. By the grace of God, I get her to her seat and proceed with the workout it takes to get her in it. This is usually when she gets my hair because I’m leaning right over her.

Recently, I discussed the scenario with her therapists, and one mentioned wearing a hoodie. DUH!!! Thank goodness for other people and their genius ideas. Since, I can’t necessarily control the bus environment, I can find ways to control the situation. I can prevent her from getting to my hair. Adaptation folks!

By wearing the hoodie and tying it around the neck, I eliminated the physical battle by taking away from hair.

4. STAY CALM YOURSELF. This is HUGE and A LOT easier said that done. Anyone that has ever experienced an autistic meltdown knows exactly what I mean. The thing is, if we become escalated, then we just perpetuate their escalation. Admittedly, in the past I struggled with this. With time and professional tools from the ABA therapists, I am proud to say I can stay calm more than not now. If you have a person in your life with autism, meltdowns are inevitable. Finding ways to CALMLY cope to will be extremely beneficial for both of you.

Coping has been an ever evolving process for me, but I’m grateful I am learning how to be the best mom I can be for Brynn. Although, autism is a huge part of our lives and can complicate things sometimes, we are still living and enjoying our lives as fully as possible.

2 thoughts on “Autism, Meltdowns, & Tantrums

  1. Nicole B. says:

    This is sooooo informative! I’m very aware that my step son’s spot on the spectrum is so close to normal, I don’t have a clue what many parents of autistic children go through. Your honesty and practical tips are fantastic. Thank you!


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