child with autism throwing tantrum

Extreme Behaviors: Tantrum or Meltdown?

Annie Tanasugarn, PhDc, BCBA CEO/AUTHOR, The Autism Analyst
"Autism Awareness simply means to acknowledge that Autism exists; Acceptance is to acknowledge its value."

How many parents out there have seen a tantrum? Most (if not all!) of us can reasonably say, with some certainty, that we have indeed witnessed a total meltdown from a child. You know what it looks like:

  • Screaming
  • Kicking, Possible Aggression
  • Throwing Items
  • Inconsolable
  • Biting
  • Scratching
  • Stomping
  • Possible Self-injury

Yikes! But there are some key differences between a full-blown behavioral tantrum and a sensory meltdown in children with Autism and other developmental disabilities. While the outward behaviors are pretty much the same, the function – or defining reason is often quite different.

How to gauge whether it’s likely a tantrum or meltdown.


Most every kid out there has experienced a tantrum. These behaviors typically originate from a child’s desires in gaining access to a certain item, in getting someone’s attention, or in avoiding something they don’t want to do. For example, a teacher may ask a child to take out their math book and turn to page 16. If the child engages in a tantrum behavior and there is a pre-determined history of math homework causing behaviors in the child, the child may be trying to avoid doing his/her homework. Similarly, if a child screams, drops to the floor and begins kicking and punching the ground when a toy is removed from their hand, they may have begun a tantrum in order to gain more access to their favorite toy, especially if there is an established history of this occurring. Have you ever witnessed a toddler falling to the ground, arms flailing, kicking and screaming only around a particular person? This may be due to him/her wanting attention from that specific person.

Sensory Meltdowns:

While they look very similar (ok, identical!) to the traditional tantrum, these behaviors are not governed by the functions of access, attention or escape/avoidance. They are the result of a “sensory overload” or hyper-overstimulation. These behaviors often continue if the audience (parent; teacher) leaves the room, or redirects their attention to something else. They often continue even if the child has their favorite toy right in front of them. To reduce a sensory meltdown, I have advised parents to create a sensory friendly room to place the child in when meltdowns occur. Rooms can be any functional room in the house that is quiet, with minimal lighting, and no distractions or stimulating items. Remove wall hangings and wall art. Remove all items that could be used as weapons or for self-injurious behaviors. Add soft lighting, cushy beanbags or other sensory-friendly soft chairs, soft plush blankets, and even a tent for children to sit inside of. Sensory vests are one option for helping assist in meltdowns as they provide proprioceptive sensory to ease the child. Speak with your behavior analyst or occupational therapist prior to using a vest. Some parents have also included lavender or chamomile essential oils being dabbed onto soft lights for easing overstimulation. This idea is good for some parents, but I caution using this for children who have issues with mouthing items, or for those with hypersensitivity to scents.


Remember, the only way to assess the true function of your child’s behavior is through formal assessment and observation, along with parent training to help foster skill-building and awareness of this common issue.

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