Despite the way the neurotypical world uses the words, meltdown and tantrum are not interchangeable. They are two distinctly different events happening. The first happens primarily in the special needs community. (It does happen to NT people, but the pressure required to get to a meltdown point is so extreme that it is rare in children, which is my focus as a mother.) The second, the tantrum, happens in children or the child-like.
A meltdown is “rapid or disastrous decline or collapse” or “a breakdown of self-control (as from fatigue or overstimulation)” according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. In ASD kids, they can also occur as a result of the violation of some rule or perceived violation of a rule. These rules do not have to be known to the rest of the world for them to be important to the individual, nor do they have to follow any kind of logic. The simple fact is, the rule was broken and it was too much for the person to handle. As the child matures, he develops more control to stave off the meltdown, especially if he is worked with in patience and love. Also, the more verbal he becomes, the more he can alert others to the need to have a rule met.
This past weekend, while we were out of town for Bible Quizzing, we went out to eat at a CiCi’s Pizza restaurant. By the register was a sign stating that the clear glasses were to be used for water only. Pony-Boy read the sign to me and indicated that he wanted water to drink. I explained that was not a problem. However, while we were paying, the employee at the register explained that the discount we were receiving for being part of a church group had the drink already included in the price. I explained to Pony-Boy, who was beginning to break, that he was allowed to put water in his green cup. After repeating it once or twice, and the employee assuring him it was allowed, he started to come back from the edge a little.
Then we rounded the corner. Directly above the drink station was a reminder of the rule. “Clear glasses are for water ONLY!” All of his previous anxiety about this rule came welling back up immediately, along with more because he was now in possession of a rule-breaking green cup. There was panic in his eyes as he began perseverating aloud about the cup. His volume level was raising with each repetition. My calm assurances were no longer reaching him and we were quickly reaching full blown meltdown mode.
Thankfully, my eyes met those of the worker’s and she understood my unasked question immediately. She brought us a clear cup immediately and exchanged it with me for his green one. As he was now within the boundaries of the rule, he was able to come back to me, away from the precipice he was on. He used his chewelry to calm the rest of the way until we got to the table, where he used his actual food to satisfy that desire. However, the event itself held the potential to send him into a tailspin that can take days to come out of. Days of squeezing, swaddling, brushing, staying home to avoid additional stimuli (at least the kind that can be avoided), and other calming home therapies all designed to break through the wall he constructs with the outside world.
The outward behaviors of a meltdown vary by the person and the nature of the cause. Pony-Boy has some that are as calm as yelling and crying at the top of his lungs, but also has some that spiral into full blown rages, although thankfully not as many as he once did. Duckie, however, usually has more emotional than physical meltdowns, crying jags that I fear may actually dehydrate him and the like. Moose, different still, poses an entirely different difficulty as he internalizes a lot and the breaks with me not seeing the build-up, and therefore having little to no chance of calming him down. The good part is that, so far, his haven’t lasted nearly as long as the twins’ did at his age.
A tantrum is a “childish fit of rage or outburst of bad temper.” These are usually associated with children (or the child-like) not getting their way. They want something and react to being told they cannot have or do what they want. It is different from the meltdown because the permission to have or do can almost instantaneously turn the fit off. The behavior is intentional to cause a reaction of pacification, not the intense desire to have a rule followed, unless you count the rule of that child’s will.
The same day as the above story, still in CiCi’s, Pony-Boy asked for an additional quarter to play a video game. He had already spent his allotment, but wished for the fun to continue. I told him no because we were about to leave and he needed to use the restroom. He whined a little and I chose to ignore him, standing firm in my original answer. He raised his voice and said, “But I don’t want to leave! I want to play!” Remove the fact that I’ve previously told you he has special needs and he sounds like just another whiny kid, right?
Our children’s pastor actually thought I would have classified his quarter-related behavior as a meltdown. She congratulated me on following advice she had previously given me to just ignore the meltdowns. (Advice that, I will admit, I listened to with the love she gave it, and disregarded.) Because I have known her since I was a child myself and know that she is genuinely interested in helping our family, I took the moment to tell her that there was a difference, and that this was a fit like any other child. Her response was what inspired me to share this.
“Oh, well this is all I ever see.”
The emphasis in her response is mine. I honestly think that is what is confusing to some people. Many of the outward symptoms appear similar, so they consider meltdowns no different than tantrums. The difference is in the cause of the event, not the behavior that takes place during it.
Did you catch that? That was the important part, so I’ll say it again.
The difference is in the cause, not the behavior.
The other part that seems to confuse the NT world is that ASD kids are capable of both tantrums and meltdowns. Many people believe the word is used to describe the behavior (i.e. meltdowns are more extreme tantrums) so they interchange the words based on their belief on what variation of behavior is being exhibited. Because the neurotypical world rarely deals in the trigger of the behavior like special needs parents must, they have difficulty differentiating between the two.
Whether she recognized the difference in the behavior or not, the employee at CiCi’s saved me a potential disaster because she recognized the cause. She also handled it excellently as she offered me the cup instead of trying to interact with Pony-Boy. (He wouldn’t have heard her at this point.) I wish I had the frame of mind to catch her name because I would send her a thank you note.
I implore you, dear one, the next time you see the kid screaming in the market, to consider that you do not know the cause so much as the behavior. Then, think about offering a prayer to God instead of advice to the parent. I can guarantee you the first will go much further.