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.