Tantrum vs Autistic Meltdown: What Is The Difference?

An autistic meltdown is bigger, more emotional and more difficult to manage than the average temper tantrum.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
September 22, 2023

Tantrum vs Autistic Meltdown: What Is The Difference?

Autism tantrums are characterized by unrelenting screaming, head-banging, defiance, and tears.

We all know about this or some version of this. At some point every child will have a temper tantrum; it may be quick and easily diffused, or it may be colossal, embarrassing, and out in public where you just want to run around the corner and hide. Tantrums are inevitable, regardless of parenting or working in education.

Typically, children with autism have more difficulty recognizing and controlling emotions, which leads to more tantrums than children without autism.

The average person’s tantrums pale in comparison to theirs in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. If tantrums are interfering with everyday tasks at school and disrupting those around, they can be considered excessive and need to be dealt with. If a child has an emotional outburst once in a while, there is no need to be concerned.

However, if these outbursts happen every day and prevent the child from completing daily tasks, then the issue needs to be addressed. What interventions do ABA therapists use to reduce tantrums?

The reason why a child is having a tantrum is of utmost importance in order to develop a plan to reduce the occurrences, whether in the classroom, when receiving specialized ABA therapy or even at home.

The therapist will conduct a functional analysis to determine the cause of the problem and how to best help the patient. The first step is determining the antecedent or the events that led up to the behavior (the tantrum).

Some examples of antecedents that may lead to Britney having a tantrum are:

  • Being unable to effectively communicate with her caregiver
  • Being told no or not getting what she wants at that time
  • Seeing someone else get attention from her preferred person
  • Having a moment where there is a sensory overload
  • Being asked to do an unpreferred activity

Her teachers of Britney have recently reported an increase in tantrums, both in frequency and duration, and they are asking for help to identify the problem. The ABA therapist observed Britney at different times throughout the day for a few days. He noticed that Britney is usually placed in a group with or sitting near a particular student who is very loud and often stims right before she has a tantrum.

The antecedent of “this situation” is a certain student who makes noise and frequent gestures. Implementing antecedent interventions immediately after you understand what is going on is important for preventing tantrums.

A behavior intervention plan (BIP) can be created once the typical antecedents, behaviors, and consequences are determined for Britney and her tantrums. ABA therapists and SPED teachers have their own methods of collecting data and creating a BIP. Some common interventions used to reduce or prevent tantrums in children with autism include:

  • Structuring time and using schedules
  • Ignoring problem behavior through extinction
  • Using shared control, or choice (for example via a choice board)

Using behavioral momentum

**Behavioral momentum refers to the tendency for behavior to persist following a change in environmental conditions. The greater the rate of reinforcement, the greater the behavioral momentum.

  • Altering demands
  • Using social stories
  • Using clear communication
  • Utilizing consequences
  • Using a reward system

Now back to Britney. A Behavior Intervention Plan was created for Britney by her ABA therapist and teacher.

Some proactive interventions the team decided to put into place include allowing Britney to choose preferred seating at certain times, giving her a break card so that she may be allowed to leave the group or room with an adult if she starts to feel frustrated, and to begin using a token economy for appropriate behaviors, such as engaging with other students, staying in a group, etc. Part of any BIP should be to teach replacement behaviors for the tantrums.

We cannot expect that Britney will be successful in reducing her inappropriate behaviors if she is not explicitly taught replacement behaviors. “Instead of doing this, you can do this or that.”

Dealing With a Tantrum in the Moment

Just because Britney has a BIP, doesn’t mean that the problem behavior will not present itself. More realistically, the problem behavior may increase due to what is known as an extinction burst.

Not only does Britney need to be taught how to monitor her feelings and control her tantrums, but she also needs to be able to self-monitor (which is not always an option for children with autism) and/or accept help from others in order to reduce the duration and intensity of a tantrum once one has begun.

Interventions to help children while they are in the middle of a tantrum are:

  • Practice deep breathing and counting with the child
  • Use sensory items (fidget toy, lower lighting, weighted vest or blanket)
  • Use three-step prompting to get the child back to a task and compliant
  • Reduce anxiety through calming music or essential oils
  • Allow the use of noise-canceling headphones if that helps
  • Limit verbal demands unless you are using three-step prompting

Some extra tips from TotalCare ABA

Stay calm. Becoming angry or frustrated will make the situation worse when trying to end a tantrum you want your child to calm down. This won’t happen unless you are also calm.

When you are agitated, upset, and yelling your child will feed off this energy and will have a more challenging time calming down. If your child is in danger of hurting himself or others, take him to a quiet, safe place. In a public move the child from the attention of onlookers.

A tantrum may stop if the audience is removed. Many of these strategies can be used even if a full-blown tantrum is not going on. The main thing teachers and caregivers want to remember are that it is better to be proactive than reactive, which is why the Behavior Intervention Plan is so important.

Figuring out the WHY behind the tantrum and creating a plan of action is a must. Determine precursor behaviors and antecedents so that you know exactly when a tantrum might rear its ugly head.

Training a child with autism to stay out of and get out of a tantrum takes persistence, motivation, and a lot of positive reinforcement; but it can be done! If you are currently dealing with a tantrum situation at home or in the school setting, contact us or an ABA therapist or your school’s counselor, and discuss your options as soon as possible.