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Meltdown vs. Tantrum

Posted by on March 27, 2013


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.

13 Responses to Meltdown vs. Tantrum

  1. Crystal @ Serving Joyfully

    I’ve been there. I saw that one coming, I would have just said, “included or not, he’d prefer the water” But, then again for my boys (one who’s 5 and in the diagnosis process for HFA and one who’s 3 with lots of symptoms), they have good days and bad days. Some days it’d be fine to use a different cup, and some days it’d be meltdown material.

    I understand about the cause behind it being a lot of the difference. It’s funny because as the mom, you can tell when it looks the same to others, which is why so many special needs kids in this way are initially labeled spoiled or just bad kids.

    For mine, also a tantrum makes more logical sense to us NT folks. He wants a quarter and didn’t get it. That’s easy to understand. I may not necessarily throw a tantrum about the same thing, but the reasoning makes sense. For us, melt-down is usually when they are completely inconsolable over something that ONLY makes sense because we’re living this life.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • MedinaMom

      True! Honestly, if I had been more in my head, I could have seen it coming, too. I was too far off my focus to see it from the first moment, though.

      • Crystal @ Serving Joyfully

        Also, I should say that I did NOT mean that comment the way it kind of sounds…I really only “saw it coming” because of the topic of the post, and I can see one of my boys doing that as well. I have been in a vertigo stupor today, induced by a sinus infection and inner ear problems, so don’t mind me! lol

        I was also going to add that sometimes for us a meltdown starts off as what I would consider a regular tantrum, but then escalates into something beyond that.

        • MedinaMom

          I followed you, but thank you for clarifying in case anyone comes along and wonders. I would hate for them to get the wrong impression, too. :)

  2. J, Aspergris

    My sister-in-law linked us to this entry (my niece is allegedly HFA, but more likely Aspie) and I have to say “Thank you very much!” Not that it’s NEW information, but it’s not CODIFIED enough by those who know it, especially in terms of how the NT world sees it and what they do about it. Not only does it help clarify my son’s actions a bit (age 4, PDD-NOS, as they used to call it, with OCD) but my own childhood as an undiagnosed Aspie with NT parents. (Of course, my very real temper didn’t help to clarify things for them.) We didn’t discover my own ASD until my wife was already expecting our boy.

    • MedinaMom

      You are most welcome! I remember how confusing it was talking to the “veterans” when we first discovered our diagnoses and ask God to shine clarity. I am very thankful to hear that was answered and I was able to be helpful. :)

  3. Tricia

    Thanks for your post. Although I have very little idea of what your initials are! I understand your topic and it brought a lot of clarification for me. I have a child that has meltdowns, and I’ve understood this from early on. He’s not a special needs child, but does have Tourette’s (mild case) that I believe is genetically linked to the congenial heart defect he had, although I haven’t been able to fully prove it without invasive tests, but still hold firm to my beliefs. Your posts will help me better identify his meltdowns verses tantrums, so thank you very much for your story.

    • MedinaMom

      Tricia, I must apologize! When I first entered the special needs world, I was confused by all the acronyms floating around myself. It wasn’t long before they became just another part of my language. I try to qualify them, though, when I am writing, and I neglected to when I wrote this.

      NT=neurotypical. Many, including myself, prefer to use this term to “normal” to describe those without special needs.

      ASD=Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since I have children who are on various points in the spectrum and I feel what I am saying applies to each of them, I use this to incorporate them into one group.

      I don’t see them in this particular post, but two of the others I use frequently are:

      Aspie=one who has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is considered part of the spectrum.

      HFA=High Functioning Autism. This is similar but not precisely the same as Asperger’s Syndrome although many who don’t deal with the two on a regular basis have a hard time discriminating between the two.

      I hope this helps answer some of your questions! I will pray for you and your precious boy!

  4. Lisa

    Deb Lipsky, an author and speaker who has HFA, has a book called From Anxiety to Meltdown where she goes into the specifics of a tantrum vs a meltdown, triggers and signs of each, how to distinguish between them and how to respond. All of this from her being an insider on autism and not just an outside observer. Very easy to read and use. In only a short weekend I was able to take the tools in this book and begin applying the knowledge to my son (and even my NT kids too) with good progress! I’m so very thankful for this book and articles like this that explain and teach that not everything is as we first think. We can know our children and understand their needs, reactions and signals. Seeing the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is a tremendous tool.

    • MedinaMom

      Thank you, Lisa! That sounds like a good book and great resource; I will have to see if my library has it!
      Also, thank you for your kind words! I can only pray that God uses my experiences for His glory and greater good!

  5. Cheyenne

    Jennifer, your blog is wonderful! Thank you so much for directing me to it from the Circle of Mom’s website. Reading through it has definitely inspired me to create, as Toni suggested, a character that isn’t necessarily a stereotype. (PS. LOVE the names you use for your kids.) I saw a post about Duckie that said he writes a lot of stories; does he illustrate them and share them with other people? Does he ever talk as though they exist further than just imagination? Just out of curiosity, do you plan on homeschooling your children through high school age? And did you choose to do so out of fear of the public school or because you had wanted to all along? Finally, just as I asked Toni, from an artistic standpoint for the play, if you had to describe autism in one word, whether it be from your perspective, each of your children’s, how other people see it, does anything come to mind? I’m sorry for all the questions, (feel free to pick and choose what you answer), and I thank you SO MUCH in advance for all your insight.

    • MedinaMom

      Thanks, Cheyenne!
      Ok, I will do my best to address your questions, ALL of them. If I miss one, let me know so I can answer it.
      Duckie does illustrate his stories. He absolutely LOVES to draw. He will share if encouraged to do so, but not because he feels his characters are anything more than that. The line between imagination and the absolute is tangible. From our family’s perspective, that is what autism/Asperger’s is defined as. The word you were asking me to give, that one magical word that describes it the best and most: literal. The world through my sons’ eyes is very black and white. Rules are rules and the breaking of one is dire. There is no wiggle room, no grey areas, just what is and what isn’t, what should be and what should not be. (The trick is knowing the rule system by which an individual on the spectrum operates.)
      There have been people who think that he imagines his characters are real. They try to “get on his level” and talk as though something really happened. Duckie has a hard time dealing with these people because they seem quite bonkers to him. It is actually more of the neurotypical imagination (from my experience) that blurs the line between fantasy and fact. That is why ASD is a spectrum disorder, each person on it has different things that make them different and some things that are just like everyone else around them. If one does enjoy their imaginary world, he may obsess over it to the point that every detail is important and extensive.
      I do intend to homeschool all of my kids through high school. When I first began last year, I might not have answered that as confidently, but now I am certain that what we are doing is as God intended for our family. The boys especially have flourished here this past year beyond anything I could have ever expected at a public school. Monkey-Girl has left behind so many of the attitudes she was picking up from other kids at public school about how to treat Hubby and I as parents, as well as her brothers just for being younger than she is. The five of them have all grown closer than I thought siblings could be, and that is only in a year!

      • Cheyenne

        I never got an email saying that you had responded, but I’m so glad that I decided to check. Thank you so much for your input and for the time you took to respond so honestly. I really appreciate your insight as it, along with others, has inspired me along the way. I’m discovering more and more about something I started out know very little of. I have a respect for mothers like you that appear to keep it all together. I wish you and your beautiful family the best of luck and I thank them for the inspiration.

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