When discussing behaviors of an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the word “meltdown” is often used to describe high-intensity behaviors. However, there is more discrimination that constitutes a behavior to be a meltdown versus a tantrum and both can look very similar. Therefore, how do we define each behavior to better address the antecedents (or triggers) and the consequences (or responses) to the behavior?
If giving a general rule to distinguishing between a tantrum and meltdown, the easiest answer is when someone is having a tantrum, they are actively choosing their behavior and a meltdown develops when they are reacting instinctively to their environment without control of their behavior. To better define those differences and be able to functionally address each, comparisons should be made. The following questions can help determine if an individual is having a tantrum or meltdown:
1. Does the intensity vary?
When an individual is having a tantrum, their intensity can fluctuate repeatedly and involve planning. For instance, could be the person hitting and kicking for a minute and then stop to look around the room to find something to break, but go back to aggression after standing calmly for 10 seconds. Meltdowns display either a constant intensity of behavior or a constant escalation of behavior without pauses.
2. Is the individual looking for a reaction?
Tantrums are related to someone wanting a specific outcome such as attention, escape or avoid something, or getting access to something like a toy. During the tantrum, the individual can be doing things that they believe will upset the intervening person enough to get what they want and look for a reaction to see if it has potential to work. This is the reason why being neutral is a crucial step when responding to a tantrum. Meltdowns can also be the result of attention, escape, or access to something, but there is a sensory component as well. If the person is overstimulated, then they no longer have interest in what someone else is reacting to and they are only responding to something that is not in their control and usually not observable.
3. How does the behavior end?
Meltdowns typically have a de-escalation pattern where the high-intensity behavior slowly decreases over time until they are at a low enough level to control their own behavior again. Tantrums may stop abruptly when the individual gets tired or receives what they want.
Although the above descriptions can help determine what type of behavior an individual is engaging in, it is important to remember every person is different and ASD is a large spectrum that involves numerous factors of why behavior occurs and continues. Consequently, it is vital to identify proactive strategies and responses that will work for each individual and personalize behavior plans to best teach functional behavior and decrease inappropriate and dangerous behavior.