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Meltdowns Are Not Tantrums: They Effect Adults With Autism Too

What is the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum when dealing with a child or an adult on the autism spectrum? Many people seem to think meltdowns are the same as a tantrum no matter what. But they are very different in reality.Tantrums are nothing more than a power-play by a person not mature enough to play the tactful game of politics. In most cases, it is obvious that the non-autistic individual is trying to act manipulative on purpose in order to achieve some kind of goal or something they desire but cannot have. When the person hears ‘no’ or ‘can’t’ the individual throws a temper tantrum with hopes of getting their way. Sadly, in some cases, it is not just children that do this but occasionally some adults partake in this kind of temper tantrum behavior. It is also common to see this in adults with certain narcissistic traits because all they are thinking about is personal gain and getting what they want. Such as to win an argument, to getting what they think they deserve no matter what someone tries to communicate with them.

S.C.A.R.E. Model
Google images
Google images

When it comes down to meltdowns within autistics or certain learning disabilities, it is due to being over-stimulated (or sensory overloads) by too much stress, anxiety etc. A person having a temper tantrum will usually try not to hurt themselves but will pretend that they are not being careful (sometimes they will hurt themselves on purpose in certain cases). But when dealing with an autistic meltdown, a person is not aware of the danger to themselves or to others. During a meltdown, a person is incapable of listening, and it will not help to try to discuss the meltdown until it has fully run its course and sometimes this can take hours. The person having the meltdown is not a dog, so they do not need to be dealt with immediately. If the meltdown is dealt with improperly, it may only just extend if not worsen the behavior in the first place. Now, if the person that is having a tantrum gets their way etc. the whole conundrum pretty much disappears fairly quickly.

Meltdowns have various triggers and subtle signs that may cause them to occur. Such as spacing out, starting to have little to no interaction with the environment around them, to people trying to talk to them but nothing seems to be getting through. Children with autism will have meltdowns more often than adults at times because adults can learn to handle their anger, frustration and stress over time. But eventually the autistic adult will reach their tip-over point that the problems causing the stimulation become too much to cope with. Family and friends also need to be aware that many people on the spectrum have trouble with panic disorders, and by going into a meltdown it may also cause panic attack symptoms that can be quite severe physically and emotionally. Severe panic attacks have symptoms very similar to having a heart attack, to getting physically ill as well.

When an adult has a meltdown, it is also called a cognitive meltdown within the brain. It is due to a natural fight or flight response all normal people have. But the autistic brain goes into an uncontrollable hyper-drive stage due to too much stress that causes an extreme emotional/behavioral response. If the person runs into a different room due to a flight response from a meltdown, a person should never chase them down and continue to interrogate them. This is perceived as a threat and will make things much more complicated. The best thing to do is to check on them and make sure they are safe, but to leave them alone until the meltdown has passed. If the autistic person tells another person to leave them alone, it is best to do so! To continue on and bereave the autistic individual is called social/emotional and sometimes verbal abuse on a vulnerable autistic individual.

So what should an autistic adult do when a meltdown is occurring? There is a published book with a calming model called S.C.A.R.E.D that helps not only the autistic adult, but family and friends to understand what is needed. This book is called,” Managing Meltdowns: Using the S.C.A.R.E.D: Calming Technique with Children and Adults with Autism by Deborah Lipsky and Will Richards.”

Understanding the differences between tantrums and meltdowns is a must in order to fully grasp the material from this calming model. Read “Part Two” coming soon and get a good look at how to use the S.C.A.R.E.D. model.

By Tina Elliott

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