Handling Meltdowns

Meltdowns Vs. Tantrums

A meltdown refers to a powerful response to sensory overload. When your child becomes overwhelmed, their only means of expressing it is through a meltdown. This can manifest as emotional outbursts, such as screaming and crying, or physical reactions like kicking, biting, or hitting.

While they may appear similar, meltdowns and temper tantrums are distinct. A temper tantrum is typically a child’s way of trying to obtain something they desire, whereas a meltdown serves no purpose and is beyond a child’s control.

To provide more clarity, a temper tantrum occurs when a child is:

  • Frustrated by not getting what they want.
  • Unable to do what they want.
  • Unable to effectively communicate their needs.

A child may cease a tantrum through the following responses:

  • Receiving comfort from a parent or caregiver.
  • Getting what they want (although this is not an ideal strategy).
  • Being ignored and eventually giving up on their own.

Children who throw tantrums are aware of and have control over their actions, adjusting the intensity of their tantrum based on the response they receive from a parent or adult. In such cases, behavioral strategies can be employed to manage tantrums effectively.

On the other hand, meltdowns stem from entirely different causes. They are triggered by sensory overload, and when a child on the autism spectrum experiences a meltdown, they exhibit a few defining characteristics:

  • Meltdowns may begin with pre-meltdown signs known as “rumblings,” which can manifest as verbal or physical behaviors indicating an imminent meltdown.
  • Stimming (self-stimulatory behavior) may precede a meltdown.
  • Overstimulation or unwanted sensory input can be the cause.
  • Meltdowns are not limited to young children; they can also occur in teenagers and adults.
  • Meltdowns can occur with or without an audience.
  • Meltdowns typically last longer than tantrums.

Once you can differentiate between a tantrum and a meltdown, you can employ the appropriate strategies to address the situation effectively.

Handling your child’s meltdown requires patience, understanding, and a calm approach. Here are some steps you can take to both handle a meltdown and help prevent them from occurring:

During a Meltdown

Calm man meditating in sunny summer day

Stay Calm

It's essential to remain composed during a meltdown. Speak softly and avoid making sudden movements that might escalate the situation further.

Red scissors on light blue background close up

Ensure Safety

Remove any potential hazards or objects that could cause harm to your child or others. Create a safe and quiet environment, if possible.

autism christmas

Give Space

Allow your child some personal space if they prefer it. Crowding or touching them may intensify their distress.

autism thanksgiving sensory

Minimize Sensory Input

Reduce overwhelming stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or strong odors. Dim the lights, close curtains, or move to a quieter area.

Autism Grief and death

Communicate Simply

Use clear, concise, and calm language. Avoid using complex or lengthy sentences. Offer reassurance and let your child know that you are there to support them.

Autism Grief and death
autism car ride

Wait It Out

Meltdowns can be intense but usually subside with time. Stay nearby, observe their safety, and offer support without trying to force them to stop or change their behavior abruptly.

Serious african american father and son sitting on couch in living room talking and holding hands

Debrief Afterward

Once the meltdown has passed, discuss the episode with your child if they are open to it. Keep the conversation non-judgmental and focus on understanding their feelings and identifying triggers.

Serious african american father and son sitting on couch in living room talking and holding hands

Preventing Meltdowns

autism road trip

Establish a Routine

Children with autism often thrive on predictable schedules. Maintain a consistent daily routine to provide structure and minimize unexpected changes.

The street with a bright lights. Evening night time

Identify Triggers

Observe and note down any patterns or situations that seem to lead to meltdowns. It could be loud noises, transitions, sensory overload, or specific social situations. Understanding triggers can help you make necessary adjustments.

Empty Living Room Minimal

Create a Calm Environment

Designate a quiet and soothing space where your child can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. Fill it with comforting items like soft pillows, books, or noise-cancelling headphones.


Use Visual Supports

Visual schedules, timers, and social stories can aid in comprehension and reduce anxiety about upcoming events or transitions.

Crying child boy hugging his knees on sofa

Teach Coping Strategies

Encourage your child to develop coping skills like deep breathing, counting, or engaging in a preferred activity. These techniques can help them self-regulate and manage stress.

Parents and daughter having morning breakfast at home kitchen, talking. Family bonding

Foster Open Communication

Encourage your child to express their feelings and emotions in a way that works for them, whether it's through speech, gestures, drawing, or using assistive communication tools.

child playing outside

Provide Breaks

Offer regular breaks throughout the day, especially during challenging or overwhelming activities. These breaks can help prevent sensory overload and provide a chance for self-regulation.

autism and adhd

Seek Professional Guidance

Consult with healthcare professionals, therapists, or support groups specializing in autism spectrum disorders. They can provide additional strategies tailored to the child’s specific needs.

autism and adhd

Offer Support

Although these behaviors can be challenging to handle, implementing appropriate strategies can greatly enhance your child’s capacity to regulate their emotions in the long run. As a parent, you possess a deep understanding of your child, enabling you to persistently seek out the most effective and secure methods to support them during instances of meltdown or tantrum.

Guide Disclaimer

The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice or a substitute for medical, therapeutic, or educational guidance. Meltdowns are unique to each child, and what works for one child may not work for another. It is essential to consult with qualified professionals, such as doctors, psychologists, therapists, or educators, who can provide individualized recommendations and support tailored to your child’s specific needs.