Handling Tantrums and Meltdowns in Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Many children with autsitic spectrumd isorders, including pathological demand avoidance syndrome, have meltdowns. They can have different causes. A child may act out because they’re impulsive and find it hard to delay gratification. This is different from being spoiled, although the difference may be subtle. I still act out when I ask for help and am not told when I can get it. If someone is clear when they can offer me what I need (I don’t act out for not getting something I merely want, for clarity’s sake), I usually don’t have a meltdown.

On the other hand, as a child, even up to early adolescence, I used to have tantrums when my sister got candy or a gift and I didn’t. This is not normal for a neurotypical adolescent, but that doesn’t make it not a tantrum. An autistic child beyond the typical age for temper tantrums may not be able to take the other person’s perspective, so they may feel they’re being mistreated. This can be explained in a social story, but if a child still tantrums when they’re simply not getting their way, treating it as a regular temper tantrum is best.

Some children or adults act out because they’re frustrated and don’t knwo how to solve a problem. This is something inbetween a temper tantrum and a meltdown. I often used to be frustrated if my computer was having problems, but I would not use strategieis that would solve the problem, either socially acceptable (asking for help) or not (screaming for help). In one case when I was sixteen, I totaled my computer trying to make it work again, losing five months worth of important documents.

According to Adelle Jameson Tilton and Charlotte E. Thompson, authors of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Autism, 2nd edition, a child can also have a meltdown because they’re denied something they want, but they lose total behavioral control and don’t “switch off” suddenly again if the wish is granted. Children in a meltdown do not take precautions to prevent themselves from being injured. They will not care if someone is watching or reacting, and the meltdown winds off gradually. I had meltdowns often when I was at the independence training home, throwing objects in my own apartment while no-one was there. I did need help cleaning up the mess, but usually I had calmed down and wasn’t asking for what I had originally wanted once the staff helped me clean up.

From my experience, I can tell that a meltdown can also occur when I am overloaded either cognitively, emotinally or sensorially. I remember a few weeks ago completely melting down even though I had gotten the attention I’d wanted already, because I couldn’t cope with overwhelming emotions and had failed at channeling my overload. When later asked why I had had this meltdown, I had no clue. This is in my experience a distinctive characteristic of a meltdown: meltdowns do not necessarily have an underlying reason.

Meltdowns can also happen after a small seizure, according to Jameson Tilton and Thompson. I read in my neuropsychology textbook that aggression during a seizure is very rare and usually stereotyped, but aggression after a seizure may be more common. If a child seems to be totally uninvolved in their environment for a few minutes before mtling down, this could be a sign of a silent seizure.

In children with pathological demand avoidance particularly, a meltdown may come on as a result of anxiety. Phil Christie and others in their book Understandign Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome in Children, make a rigid distinction between aggression with the purpose of avoiding demands and meltdowns out of anxiety, but in my experience this distinction isn’t always clear. After all, demand avoidance often stems from anxiety and/or overload. In situations where an autistic or PDA child is overloaded or panicking, it is important that adults reduce the demands placed on the child, use simple language and do not enforce social niceties such as eye contact.

It may help to evaluate your own behavior as the adult managing a child’s meltdown. You can ask yourself whether the demands you placed on the autistic or PDA child were reasonable, whether they were truly non-negotiable (so that you were willing to endure a meltdown for them), whether you reacted properly or may’ve overreacted, etc. Remember, a meltdown, unlike a temper tantrum, is not a power play, and as a parent, carer or teacher you shouldn’t make it about power.

If the person who had the meltdown is an older child or adult, and you have a trusting relationship with them, involve them too in the evaluation process. (Note: if you do not have a trusting relationship with them, this is something you’ll need to work on!) Evaluating should be done in a non-judgmental way, avoiding the blame game. For some children, social stories may be appropriate, while others can tell you what you need to do differently to help them prevent or minimize a meltdown. This is again not to say that you’re to blame for the meltdown, but many children and adults in a meltdown do need external support.

28 thoughts on “Handling Tantrums and Meltdowns in Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders

  1. Very interesting read. My middle boy is on the spectrum, and at ten has only recently stopped having regular meltdowns, although they still happen on occassion and I am sure will continue to. I have sometimes been accused of ‘letting him get away’ with some things, but I know that what I am actually doing is letting him avoid huge levels of stress that accompany certain situations for him. I learnt to choose carefully when I pushed issues and when I didnt. Some lessons need to be learnt, some things are not of real importance. Of course he also has to deal with normal life and school etc, and has learnt to cope very well, but still finds things overwhelming at times.


    1. I’m so glad your son is improving in terms of meltdowns. Since your son is ten, I really do hope he keeps relatively calm as puberty sets in (which I think I have another post on or I should seriously write it). I can totally understand it is a hard balancing act between letting the child “get away” with the meltdown and reducing their anxiety.


  2. This is a very interesting post Astrid. My middle daughter still has meltdowns at the age of 12 and I cannot always find an explanation for them. I have had help with this and although she has not been diagnosed with ‘Autism’, I know she is definitely on the spectrum and suspect PDA. It’s tough but I’m sure your post here will help many.


    1. Suzanne, I understand how tough it is when a child approaching the teenage years (or already there) has meltdowns. It makes both the child and parents look really bad (though I didn’t notice it myself when I was your child’s age). Since your child may have PDA, have you already read the book I cited here, Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome in Children? I bought it yesterday as an ebook and as you can tell by my citing it, have been reading a lot from it. There are also great Facebook groups on PDA which also welcome those still undiagnosed or their parents (eg. I’m a member while I’m not even sure myself I have PDA and don’t have a diagnosis).


  3. This is an excellent post. Whilst I don’t have any first hand experience with autism, my cousin’s son has autism and it is useful to read posts like this in order to get a better understanding of their lives x


  4. A very helpful post and resource for those that are dealing with or have to deal with people on the autistic spectrum.


  5. I have started following your blog through my Feedly app. I can’t remember how I found you. I think your English is awesome. I have been to Holland before in my life and Amsterdam the couple of times. It was definitely a culture shock the first time I went there. I think that European people tend not to overthink things like I do as an American. I think we need to relax a little bit. My daughter is seven and is on the spectrum. She also has a congenital heart defect and CHARGE Syndrome. She’s doing quite well both medically and educationally. She has a teacher who is new to teaching. She is in the multi needs class and is in a regular kindergarten reading class because she is brilliant that way 🙂 I am not only writing to thank you for this post, but for your other ones. But as they say if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. I have MS, and it’s the same with us. They say we are like snowflakes, no two are alike. I think like teaching, communicating is about perspective. I like to learn different perspectives so that I can be better at understanding people. And I appreciate your view and your perspective.


  6. Your blog is a great help to me as my 4 year old son has autism. He doesn’t have the language to express himself so it’s so hard to understand why he gets so upset. Tonight he had a huge meltdown, I could sense it starting but I just had to let it run its course.


  7. My 6 year old has the most spectacular tantrums if he thinks he is being ignored or not treated the same as his siblings. It is exhausting sometimes and I cannot imagine trying to cope with autism too


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