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How an autistic meltdown differs from an immature temper tantrum

Many (though not all) autistic children and adults experience occasional episodes which are now widely termed as meltdowns.

Autistic meltdowns vary according to each individual. Though the general characteristics involve yelling (with or without words), banging or thrashing around, and perhaps secondary affects including injuries, foaming from the mouth or vomiting. If the child or adult has other health issues attached, then they too will be likely to cause additional problems.

On the surface autistic meltdowns can look very similar to immature temper tantrums. Yet they are in truth very different. There are a few key reasons as to why this is the case.

When a child or adult is having a meltdown there isn’t an intended purpose as to why they are reacting (which is a much more fitting word than acting) that way. In the case of a temper tantrum the person acts that way on purpose in order to try and get something they want. Also, as soon as they either get or realise that they can’t get what they desired, the person can usually stop having their tantrum almost instantly. They will also have full awareness of the people around them, and will perform their actions intentionally towards a specific audience.

On the other hand, when an a person has a meltdown they have absolutely no control over anything that happens. They will yell, scream and thrash around regardless of where they are or who is present. In fact the person having the meltdown (and I myself have had a significant number of them) will usually feel very embarrassed about it, despite not being able to intentionally stop. We also have no awareness at the time of ourselves being put in danger. For instance injuries can be caused by us hitting our head or any other part of our body when we thrash around (we often have no sense of pain when our mind is in that state). Life threatening injuries can too be caused when we unknowingly enter dangerous places, like running into the middle of a road for example.

As mentioned before, a person having a meltdown can’t intentionally stop, no matter how hard they (or even anyone else) tries. The only thing that brings me back down from a full meltdown within an hour is a dose of Valium. Yet even then I don’t feel completely back to how I usually am until a day later.

Whenever a meltdown occurs I don’t have a clear idea of what exactly it is that’s making me react like that. However they always escalate in the same way, even though knowing this still doesn’t make it easy to prevent a meltdown.

The moment I wake up on the morning of the event I have no conscious idea that a meltdown will occur that day. Yet I’ll still feel a bit irritable emotionally. As soon as I notice that I’ll do quick mindfulness exercises and take my regular medication. That takes most of the irritability away, and I’ll mistakingly feel that I’m then okay. Thus if ever I have the option to go somewhere busy that day or do something stressful I’ll make the error of going ahead with it. However as soon as one thing goes wrong for me, my adrenaline will quickly skyrocket (meltdowns begin much more quickly than they escalate) and I’ll then completely lose control.


Meltdowns are often impossible to eradicate completely. Yet there are a few things that can be done to make them happen less frequently, or indeed less severe than they would otherwise have been. Every person is different but things that work in my own case involve me (or anyone else I know) recognising early warning signs of emotional irritability. Then from there I do my best to take it easy for the rest of the day. I do of course have daily necessities to do, which may cause difficulties in regards to that. However by trying my best I can at least lessen my anxiety somewhat. Mindfulness exercises (those that work for me personally) are also essential for me to do, and it’s important that I take them seriously and don’t just quickly rush them.