Are they the same things and what to do?

By Beata Bednarska

Do you know the difference between TANTRUMS and MELTDOWNS?

Don’t worry! A lot of parents and educational professionals are not aware of the difference between them and often we use these terms interchangeably.

Even though they might look similar, they are very different behaviours. 

“Autism is about having a pure heart and being very sensitive… It is about finding a way to survive in an overwhelming, confusing world… It is about developing differently, in a different pace and with different leaps.”  Autism Parenting Magazine

Why am I blogging about it? 

The reason behind that is that I’m the Autism Lead Practitioner and plenty of parents and professionals who help or care for children with Autism, ask me about it! They want to know what to do when the child has a meltdown.

What also very common among school staff and parents it is that they not associate it with the level of anxiety.

And what are the main goals/targets when we work or care for somebody with autism? Yes! You’re right! One of the main goals when working or helping autistic person is to reduce the anxiety. BINGO!!

The levels of anxiety in children  with autism is as high as 40 percent, suggesting that autistic individuals are more often develop an anxiety disorders as well as experiencing high levels of anxiety.

Why the anxiety disorders are more common in autistic people? 

Several autism characteristic are contributing to that: rigid or inflexible thinking patterns, intolerance of uncertainty, sensory sensitivities, social communication skills difficulties.

This is why they are more likely experience high level of anxiety.

They will express their anxiety in many different ways. Some of them will be withdrawn, quiet, reluctant to speak up or try new things. Other will show aggressive behaviour, difficulty concentrating in class or show opposition and defiance.

And this is where we coming back to tantrums and meltdowns. 


Controlled, emotional outburst to bid for attention, manipulate a situation or person, or gain the control. 


Involuntary reaction to over-stimulation or  intense anxiety – children are not able to control their emotional and behavioural reactions.

The main difference would be that when a child  is in meltdown, there is always an element of cognitive dysfunction ( not able to process information, and their behaviour is being driven by their brain’s reaction to a perceived threat). They not in control of their behaviour and we should not reprimand, argue, make sarcastic comments, threaten or punish them when they during the meltdown.

Probably you’re are thinking: Who would be doing that? 

I observed parents and teachers who were dealing with children’s meltdown and above are just few examples. 

Punishing a child for doing something that s/he is not in control only make the child feel ashamed and unfairly punished, which may trigger another meltdown.

Of course, children with autism are positively capable of throwing a tantrum and you would probably struggle in differentiating between tantrums and meltdowns. So: What to do? You would say. 

I worked with many children with special educational needs (autism in particular) and I think it’s hard to differentiate between these two. If  you understand autism and follow autism good practice then you will eliminate most of those difficult situations. And when you would have doubts is it a tantrum or meltdown I strongly suggest to use strategies for the meltdown. The worst thing you could do in this situation it would be assumptions that the child is misbehaving. 

I was advocating for children with autism since 2013 and I came across so many different comments that, in my opinion  occurs, because  of  lack of understanding and knowledge about autism and anxiety. Let me give you few examples:

  • “The meltdown was so unexpected. No reason at all. I only asked him to finish his work”.
  • “She is choosing when to behave. It was deliberate chosen behaviour to avoid maths”.
  • “His fine at school. Home is the problem. It’s nothing to do with us”.  
  • “She has no reasons to worried about. She’s fussing”
  • “I have 26 children in the class and I don’t have time for this silliness”
  • “This is an inclusive school and s/he must do what the other kids are doing”

Meltdowns are not appearing suddenly without the reason. The causes would depend on the individual child but it could be sensory overload, to many demands, to many unpredictability, sudden change, information overload, etc.

Preventing meltdowns by lowering a child’s level of anxiety or expectations, teaching them social skills, coping strategies, teaching about their symptoms and use of good practice guidelines when working or caring for children with autism is the best policy. I strongly believe that knowing the child and prevention are the best tools, especially, that we are not the creators of more problems or inappropriate behaviours.

Identifying triggers is one of the most important duties. As soon as we identify the reasons we can avoid them at first and then teach the child necessary, appropriate coping strategies.

But when we are facing child’s meltdown it’s good to follow several simple steps to support children and ourselves, to get through it safely

If you would like to download the visual aid then please click here.

Anxiety is a very interesting and broad topic. If you have any questions or if you would like to know more about anxiety and strategies to help your children please feel free to comment below or write an email to me. It would be a pleasure to help. 

Until the next time…