The Meaning of a Meltdown

The meaning of a meltdown feature

To most parents, the words tantrum and meltdown are interchangeable – a way to describe a frustrated and uncontrollable child – the name for those moments when strangers stare and you wish you could shrink into yourself. Every parent knows them.

To the parents of autistic children, and parents of children with sensory processing issues, those words will always mean very different things.

It is hard to make others understand. The difference between those two words is central to my life. I wish I could explain; I wish I could show you…

But a child in meltdown is confidential. I cannot show my gorgeous boy in full meltdown mode because it is, should be, taboo. It lays him bare, at his most vulnerable. He is pure emotion, pure anguish. There are no photos, no record of our bleakest times but these words.

There are those who will witness such moments; they will see. But they will not KNOW. No one, not even his grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles – the hundreds of people who love him – they do not KNOW.

I can give you the definitions –

Tantrums are designed to get a reaction. They are goal orientated. They are a form of manipulation and require an audience.

Meltdowns happen regardless of whether anyone is watching. They are a result of complete mental, emotional and physical overload. There is no control, no ‘discipline’ or incentive that can make it stop, save waiting and repeated calming measures. They happen because the way a person with sensory issues experiences the world is very different to the way others experience it. Noise, crowds, sensations, unpredictability – they take a toll that we cannot imagine.

To the outside, the behaviours for both meltdowns and tantrums can look exactly the same. Autistic children sometimes wail and lash out when having meltdowns. Sometimes they shut off completely in an attempt to cope – become blank and unreactive to the world.

Sometimes, my boy has tantrums – like most children.

Much more frequently – several times every week – my beautiful boy has meltdowns.

They come suddenly- a word out of place, a missing cup, a song that comes on out of track order – and they completely overwhelm him. There are subtle signs that one is coming, but the final straw is hard to predict.

There are some, even here, shaking their heads. I know. I see scepticism when I try to explain to friends and acquaintances. There are those who will think I am deluding myself, making myself feel better about my lack of discipline, or about having a ‘difficult’ child.

But I KNOW. I know there is no ounce of manipulation in his despair. I know that his reaction is as all-consuming as a hurricane. And just as you cannot train a storm to cease, there is no way to help my boy. His mind becomes chaos, his body pain…

I feel it with him.

This week, we tried to do too much. The sun has been shining. Mummy and Daddy are off school. There is a world to explore and places to visit. The days tumbled out in a long catalogue of picnics to have, grandparents to visit, seal sanctuaries to see, National Trust gardens to roam and adventure play parks to try.

I should have known. Last half-term, we did the same, and my boy was more and more lost to us each day out of routine.

It was too much. He was forced to cope, every day, and every day his little body got more overwhelmed and every day his little mind became too full and every day he began to feel like the world was shattering around him.

And at the end of that story, you might see a little boy screaming and screaming until it seems his lungs might burst. You might see his mother, desperately trying to contain him, struggling to carry him back to the car, to safety, and his music, while he flails and screams and wails.

And you would not know.

My boy is sweet and kind and obedient. Malice, deceit, jealousy – they are strangers to him. In his routine he is loving, funny, quirky and brilliant. My only sorrow stems from his – I wish I could take it from him.

But in a meltdown he is lost in a storm, spinning and screaming, and he feels like no one can hear him.

Afterwards, there is calm, quiet. He stares into space, headphones on, body very slightly twitching in time to the beat. It takes a long time, for his words to come back. It takes a long time before he can look at us again. It takes a long time, before my little boy is there again. Often, I feel more frustration, more heartache then – when he is missing.

After the storm has passed...

And so we have returned home, to routine and familiarity and the same songs, the same cartoons, in the exact order – where events follow on from one another in the same way, every day.

And if you shook your head, if you tutted when you caught the end of the story, if you think you know a tantrum when you see one –

I have tried to explain. But ultimately, you don’t matter.

Because I know.

Tantrum or Meltdown- - This explains a little bit about the difference between an autistic meltdown and a tantrum.


For more posts about autism, check out our autism category.


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44 thoughts on “The Meaning of a Meltdown

  1. If I had a dollar for every time I said “you don’t know”, lol. I know it’s a serious post, but I had to laugh to myself because even though you explained it so well, people still won’t/can’t understand the meltdown. I gues at least I know that you know. Thanks for the post.

    1. Ahhh I know. I see scepticism from people all the time. It is frustrating but at least I know my boy always has me on his corner – I understand. At least as much as any neurotypical person can. I often wish I could experience it just as he does, so I could really know. But just being there for him will have to be enough. Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. As a parent of an autistic child, I feel kind of cross when people say their ( non autistic) children had a meltdown when it was just a tantrum. If only they knew!
    My son doesn’t have meltdowns much any more, but when he does they are spectacularly big and quite upsetting, the last one he had was outside and I had to restrain him to stop him from running across a busy road but he’s very strong. I remember people driving past staring out of their window as a grown woman wrestled a 7 year old, I’m sure they were judging my parenting skills, wondering why I couldn’t control my tantruming child. I just wish they knew what is was like!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. It is really tough when people will just assume some kind of ‘bad’ behaviour, especially when your child is suffering so much. If my explanation makes even one person who was unaware think twice about it, I will be happy 🙂

  3. Such a well – written post giving a fantastic insight into the differences 🙂 It’s true that nobody else really can understand unless they’ve been through it 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words and for commenting. It is really difficult to try to convey to people but I’ve been thinking about it for a while so felt I wanted to give it a go 🙂

  4. Sometimes when my kids have a tantrum I have to try not to laugh. That NEVER happens with a meltdown. It’s complete despair. I can describe it, I can retell it, I can cry for him but I can’t know what it’s like to feel like that. Hope you are all settled again. Xxx

    1. When I say I feel it with him I mean the anguish and despair, rather than what the sensory overload actually feels like. I really wish I could experience that so I knew, so I could understand how to help it better, but hopefully as he gets older he will be able to help us with that by explaining himself. Thanks so much for commenting 🙂

  5. My son doesn’t hardly has meltdowns anymore and when he does, they are small and can be contained. I’ve been parenting him for 14 years now and I know that no one knows better than I do how to calm him. He has also learned how to cope with change but it wasn’t easy. I remember when he was in elementary school the teachers would give me social stories to show him if there was going to be any change. At first, they it would take a week to prepare him for the change that was coming. Then it was a few days. Now all I have to do is tell him the day before that we have plans to do something/go somewhere and he’s okay with it. I completely understand what you mean when you say you feel it with him. That brought tears to my eyes because I remember my boy when he was little and when he was in a meltdown, I felt it too. It’s so unbelievably powerful and overwhelming isn’t it? No one who doesn’t have a child with Autism or a sensory issue understands, not even family. They can’t because they aren’t around your child like you are. They don’t know him like you do. Keep up the amazing work you’re doing mama! You’re doing great! #bigpinklink

    1. Thanks so much for such a lovely comment. It can be really tough at the moment. I am hoping that as he gets older, he will gradually learn how to cope better, as your lad has. Thanks again 🙂

  6. The difference in Max’s meltdowns and Evie’s tantrum is huge. Don’t get me wrong she can throw some absolute whoppers but it’s always for a reaction. A meltdown is so so different x #bigpinklink

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. Yes – my littlest is only 18 months but already I can see how her tantrums are going to differ! She even does a little smile when she thinks I am not looking because she thinks she is being clever! Thanks again. x

  7. Such a beautifully written post. I understand completely. My son has meltdown. We don’t yet have a diagnosis but I have always suspected that he is autistic and the really meltdowns have only happened in the last few years. It is like you describe and so heartbreaking. We can only do what we are already doing, support them and look for the warning signs but it can be really tough.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting and your kind words. I hope you can get some answers for your son very soon. xx

  8. A really beautifully written post, I can’t even begin to imagine how you or you’re gorgeous little boy must feel in these situations but this has definitely helped me to get an insight. Thanks for sharing this to help us to understand. Thank you for linking to #bigpinklink x

    1. Thank you. It’s quite a tough subject to write about as it feels a little bit like an invasion of his privacy but if it helps people have more awareness and acceptance then it is worth it. Thanks so much for commenting and your kind words.

  9. I know and I feel your every emotion as I too experience this with my sunshine Jason…the meltdowns many don’t get to see in our world of loving our autistic child. Thank you for sharing as many times I feel as I am all alone.

  10. Having an Autistic child you have put into words so eloquently what a meltdown is like.

    It took us so long to learn he difference. For so long after his diagnosis we misinterpreted the two. Leading to frustration from us and even more from him.

    Over time we have learnt some triggers but like you say, some meltdowns are for something as trivial to us as his plate not being where he expects it to be.

    Thanks so much for sharing.


    1. Thanks so much for commenting and your kind words. It is so hard to know where to draw the line – when discipline is needed and when just time and love is best. But we love them and we do our best and that is enough.

  11. Oh gosh this resonated so loudly with me. I think I have said before how Megan is waiting to be assessed be CAHMS and boy do I know the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. Sometimes her meltdowns can last for hours, to the point she is headbutting the walls, hitting herself in the face, lashing out and her face is purple with fury and that can be triggered by a loud noise she didn’t like, a new social situation, somebody glancing at her the wrong way. It absolutely breaks your heart doesn’t it? With Megan, there is no coaxing her out of it either, we simply have to wait for her to exhaust herself.
    This is such a well written and informative post, thank you so much for sharing. xxx

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. We find with E that music really helps. It’s pretty much the only thing that will calm him with very bad ones – the headphones shut out all other sensory issues and he can just relax. Does she have anything she really, really loves? Something you can use as a way in? It’s so so tough to watch them like that and I hope you get some answers and some help soon. xxx

  12. Nobody knows – lots of people express surprise at my sons diagnosis; they haven’t seen his meltdowns, and I wouldn’t want them to. So heartbreaking, and so part of everyday life for us . Thanks for a heartfelt post #kcacols

  13. We wondered if our eldest might be on the spectrum because of his epic tantrums. The bad ones were similar but not as all consuming as you so eloquently describe. I read the other day about oxytocin sprays being used successfully treat autism. Really hope that they’re is some hope for you and your boy. We really want to take away the pain for them…if only we could #KCACOLS

  14. It is frustrating that people don’t understand. The word meltdown is used interchangeably with tantrum now and many people just don’t know the difference. A lot of people just see what they think is an over-indulged or badly behaved child. Even at best people avert their gaze and hurry past. My son can also have tantrums but when he is in full meltdown there’s no amount of discipline that could have prevented it. Sometimes there are recognisable signs or triggers and others we find it hard to pin point the cause. He’s often completely exhausted after it and sobbing/shaking uncontrollably. I often feel like this too and cry/sob along with him. It would be nice if we could just shrug off how other people react but it’s so hard. It’s amazing how much you understand your son and he’s so lucky that you do. Thanks for sharing this, I feel like I was reading about my son too. #kcacols

    1. Thanks so much for such kind words and such a thoughtful comment. I am so glad when I find other parents who relate as it makes us all feel a bit less lonely- and if I make people with no experience stop and think just a little bit then I feel I have done something worthwhile! xx

  15. So beautifully written and well explained. I had no idea (or experience as baby is just 5 months) of the differences between meltdowns and tantrums but now I will never mix up the two. You sound like the most amazing mother, so full of empathy and understanding for your beautiful little boy. Thanks for sharing #KCACOLS

  16. I, too, have seen so many use the terms tantrum and meltdown interchangeably. You know, I honestly never even considered the definition of a true meltdown. I’ve never actually witnessed a true autistic meltdown, but I imagine it must make you feel so helpless. You are such an incredible mama, who writes so elegantly. Thanks so much for sharing pieces of your world with us <3 #KCACOLS

  17. This is a great post, really well written and helps me to understand how a child with autism feels and thinks. I definitely don’t judge when I see a child have a ‘tantrum’ simply because I don’t know their situation. People should be more understanding in general, judging helps no one. #kcacols

  18. This post is fantastic for sharing with us what a meltdown is. I for one would find it hard to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

    Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next Sunday

  19. I know what you mean about the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. We have definitely experienced both and seen the differences. Mine has meltdowns mostly when he is really tired it’s like someone flipped a switch and I have to spend an hour trying to calm him down and keep him sage. Thanks for sharing your experiences #KCACOLS

  20. This is a really beautifully written post and your son is a beautiful boy. Your description of being able to feel when a meltdown is brewing are what makes them feel different from the tantrums that my two year old has.

    My son’s tantrums aren’t bad behaviour necessarily (okay there is a bit of that), they are him learning about anger and frustration and boundaries and testing his Mummy’s patience.

    Your description of your son’s meltdowns feel very different. They are to shut the world out rather than explore its boundaries, they are to cut off the overwhelming emotions.

    Your son is lucky to have someone who gets him the way you do.

    Pen x #KCACOLS

  21. It is difficult when people don’t understand and seemingly refuse to. Yes, those words are used pretty much interchangeably these days, even by parenting sites. But they are quite different. Tantrums are for attention or showing how displeased they are with what we did not let them do – but meltdowns are a loss of control, an overwhelming situation that the little one cannot handle. And I might not even get it at the level you do, but I do know there is a difference. It is wonderful that you understand your little one and can feel what he feels, helping ease him through it as best you can.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting and for your kind words. Your explanation of the difference is spot on I think! 🙂

  22. It’s really helpful to know the difference as our response to the child’s distress needs to be different. And people need to stop ‘tutting’.

  23. I’ve said it before, but this is such a great post, talking from personal experience and so informative 🙂

  24. Sometimes it’s definitely better to take a slow pace and do less things, isn’t it. I hope as your son gets older he’ll become able to take himself out of meltdown inducing situations before they escalate. Until then I wish you all the emotional resilience you need to help him through. Thanks for co hosting #spectrumsunday

  25. Such a beautiful post, you write so eloquently. I love the part about malice, deceit and jealousy being strangers to him. I completely get that, my son is the same. He doesn’t have a calculating or vindictive bone in his body! Great description of a meltdown and also how it feels to be a helpless Mama. Your posts are always a pleasure to read and so heartfelt. And for the parents out there who just ‘know’ who just “get it’, we know your boy is a sweet one, who is having a hard time and not giving you a hard time. #spectrumsunday

  26. This was beautifully written. My children can experience a loss of control of their emotions when they are at their breaking point. When they are over-stimulated, overwhelmed, when we have been doing too much, their teachers have given too much homework after a hectic day or I have added too many transitions into the day without figuring in enough down time, snacks or breaks. I do not feel that these are tantrums because it’s not a behavior issue when it gets to that level. And I see the warning signs too and know it’s coming but just not sure when. It’s an issue with being over-stimulated, too many bright lights/loud noises, crowds if we’re at Disneyland, etc., and then not being able to regulate their emotions, yet my children are not autistic and these would not be considered as a full meltdowns as you describe it-but it’s also not a tantrum as you describe it either. I actually have an issue with so many people just assuming a child has a behavior issue when they are “simply” having a difficult time with transitions or being overwhelmed. So in my world with my “Spirited Children” as I call them -I do say meltdown because for them -in their tiny stressful world (because it is now for most children)-that is what it is to them. A short-circut meltdown. In those desperate moments they are not acting out because they can’t play iPad or watch TV, they are voicing their feelings in the most raw way they are able to at that time. Even in our house we see the difference between the two. The tantrums that can quickly end in laughter because even they see their own ridiculousness in pouting and throwing a fit over not wanting to do homework. But in the times where they just can’t get it together and their small body is overcome with sobs and the words won’t come and they are seeing red and they are screaming and yelling and slamming doors and their muscles are tense with rage and it takes forever for us to help calm them because they just can’t seem to calm down – This is what exactly then? To me, it’s my sweet child having a meltdown and I’m trying whatever I can do to help calm them. Not give in to what they want or “letting them control the situation” as some might think, but me trying to actually help guide them to find a calm spot so I get my child back. I’d like to know what I should call it so I do not offend parents with Autistic children who are having the regular intense meltdowns like you are describing in this post. A mom at our old school has an autistic child she homeschooled who is non-verbal and very violent at times and has meltdowns like you describe a few times a day, every single day. He’s 13 yrs old and is 6 feet tall, about 150 lbs too! My children have never had a meltdown like that or even what you describe, but they are still intense for the child to experience. When I see you and your child in that situation – as a mother – I would never think for a second that your child just needs more discipline. It’s very obvious that it’s way more than that and anyone who thinks it’s a matter of discipline has never had children. Besides, you can usually tell by how the parents are reacting to it what is really going on. You might be surprised to know that some of the looks you’re getting are not looks of judgment but perhaps looks of “How can I help you in this situation even though I’m a stranger?” Or looks of, “I’m sorry you and your child are having such a difficult time right now. I wish I could do something to help.” Or “I wish I could give you a hug right now because you look like you need it!” I’m sorry you feel like you are being judged by others when your child is having a meltdown. My heart goes out to the parents and children who are experiencing that. And even when our children are not autistic we are still struggling with how to get them through the hard times that have nothing to do with discipline – even if they are extremely mild compared to your struggles. So what do you suggest we call them because they are also not just “tantrums?” To be honest, I rarely look at a child having a tantrum and judge them for not being well behaved. As a mom of 3 (one who is a high energy, 2 y/o toddler right now God help me!), I always know there is way more going on there than the child “just being a brat because they aren’t getting their way.”
    Again, beautifully written and I will be more mindful when talking to other parents about things like this in the future. PS: sorry so long!

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