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Autistic Meltdowns Explained

Autistic kid meltdowns explained

While meltdowns and tantrums often look the same, the underlying causes are very different. Meltdowns in children are an uncontrollable response to an overload of stress, often caused by sensory and emotional stimuli in the child’s environment. Tantrums, in comparison, are a controlled response to a desire or need failing to be met.

What does an autistic meltdown feel like?

As many studies have focused on parents and other observers of meltdowns, there is not much knowledge about how having a meltdown feels to the child. However, one study found that participants reported feeling overwhelmed by their senses, emotions, social situations, and information. The emotions they felt were extreme, and during meltdowns, they often struggled with their memory and even to think. They also described not feeling like themselves and feeling like they needed to keep themselves under control (Lewis LF, Stevens K, 2023).

The National Autistic Society, UK, created the video below to help people understand what becoming overwhelmed by sensory input and having an autistic meltdown might feel like:

In the video below young people discuss their experience of meltdowns:

What causes autistic meltdowns?

A meltdown is an intense reaction to overwhelming sensory, emotional, or cognitive stimuli and is often something that autistic children struggle with. Below is an explanation of some of their common underlying causes and triggers:

1. Sensory overload:

Autistic children often have heightened sensory sensitivities, making them prone to sensory overload. Overstimulation from bright lights, loud noises, or tactile sensations can lead to a meltdown.

2. Emotional dysregulation:

Autistic children may struggle with emotional regulation. They may find it challenging to cope with frustration, anxiety, or fear, leading to meltdowns when these emotions become overwhelming.

3. Communication Difficulties:

Difficulty expressing needs and feelings can contribute to meltdowns. Autistic children may feel frustrated when they cannot effectively communicate their desires or discomfort.

4. Routine Disruption:

A change in routine or environment can be distressing for autistic children. Even seemingly minor disruptions can lead to meltdowns.

5. Social stress:

Social interactions and expectations can be stressful and confusing for autistic children. This heightened state of anxiety can lead to meltdowns.

How do I know if it’s a tantrum or a meltdown?

To differentiate between autistic meltdowns and tantrums, it is essential to know the characteristics of each:

1. Motivation:

Tantrums are typically driven by a desire to obtain a specific goal, such as a toy or attention. In contrast, meltdowns arise from sensory or emotional overload, making them non-goal-oriented.

2. Duration:

Tantrums tend to be shorter in duration, often subsiding once the desired outcome is achieved. Meltdowns can persist for an extended period and may not resolve with any specific outcome.

3. Control:

During a tantrum, children often maintain some degree of control over their actions, using manipulation tactics. In meltdowns, control is minimal, if not completely absent.

4. Awareness:

During a tantrum, children are typically aware of their actions and their impact on others. In meltdowns, the child is often overwhelmed and unaware of their surroundings or the impact of their behavior.

5. Self-Injurious Behavior:

Self-injurious behaviors, like hitting or biting oneself, are common during autistic meltdowns but rarely seen in tantrums.

6. Response to comfort and solutions offered:

During a tantrum, offering comfort or a solution to the issue can often calm the individual. In a meltdown, comforting gestures may not be effective, as the individual is often unable to process or respond to gestures and speech.

How can you calm and offer support during an autistic meltdown?

Effective strategies for responding to autistic meltdowns involve empathy, understanding, and a focus on addressing the underlying triggers.

1. Stay Calm:

It is crucial for caregivers and bystanders to remain calm when witnessing a meltdown. Agitation or frustration can exacerbate the situation.

2. Ensure Safety:

The immediate priority is to ensure the safety of the individual and those around them. Remove any potential hazards or sources of harm.

3. Give Space:

Allow the child space and time to de-escalate. Crowding can heighten their distress.

4. Avoid demands:

Do not make demands or attempt to reason with the child during a meltdown, as they may be unable to process information effectively.

5. Offer Sensory Support:

It can be helpful to try to avoid or minimize sensory triggers. Providing sensory tools or comfort items, such as weighted blankets or noise-canceling headphones, can help reduce sensory overload.

6. Seek Professional Help:

If meltdowns are frequent or severe, consulting a professional can provide valuable guidance.

Understanding and distinguishing between autistic meltdowns and tantrums is essential for providing appropriate support and promoting empathy towards autistic children. Autistic meltdowns are not intentional acts of defiance but genuine responses to overwhelming stimuli. By recognizing their nature and responding with patience and compassion, we can create a more inclusive, supportive and understanding society for autistic children.


1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. Lewis LF, Stevens K. The lived experience of meltdowns for autistic adults. Autism. 2023 Aug;27(6):1817-1825. doi: 10.1177/13623613221145783. Epub 2023 Jan 11. PMID: 36632658. 9. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 10. Anderson, C., & Morris, J. (2006). Towards a definition of meltdowns in autism. Poster presented at the 35th Annual Meeting of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, Atlanta, GA. 11. Kopp, S., & Gillberg, C. (1992). The Autism Spectrum Screening Questionnaire (ASSQ): A 10-year follow-up study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33(4), 543-552. 12. Mirenda, P. (2003). Toward functional augmentative and alternative communication for students with autism: Manual signs, graphic symbols, and voice output communication aids. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 34(3), 203-216.


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