Monday, October 15, 2012

Meltdowns vs Tantrums (A New Mother Feels Alone)

I feel like I've just found a pot of gold! Is it really true that we can ask questions and you'll answer them? And that you're really autistic?! I'm flustered and don't know where to start! To distill down the story of my life which is now one big question and so few answers, I'll share this. Some weeks ago (exactly 11 weeks tomorrow, but who is counting anyway?) my 2 year old son was diagnosed with autism. The Dr believes him to be "moderate." That same week, his father, and my partner was also dx'd on the spectrum. I'm lonely and sad. I really don't know what "moderately autistic" means, or how to handle some of the behaviors my son exhibits. As an example, is it best to try to discipline tantrums, or is this something that he can't help? I want him to be thoroughly and authentically himself. But this want is conflicted with my overwhelming desire for him to fit in socially to avoid any unkindness coming in his direction. I feel terrible scolding him for acting up - should I? Is there a better way?

Dear Goldie,  (I am just making that up to call you, because I hope you did find a pot of gold; I hope I can do something good for you here.  You deserve to feel better and it would be my honor to be a part of that in any way I can...)

It's true, you can, and I am.  :)  Thanks for coming.

Here I will talk a little about the difference between meltdowns and tantrums, how you can tell, how to manage each in a quick super-effective way my mother used with me that has a good side effect for your stress level and doesn't involve having to scold/feel terrible (not that effective in either case, and I'll explain why in both cases).  Also I want to talk about how I think I might understand why you are feeling lonely, and my perspective on why I have evidence that some of the reason you feel lonely might be actually data suggesting that you are awesome.  Lastly, the fact that your son's father, your partner, is also on the spectrum can be used to your advantage, especially if everyone embraces it.  I have something to say about that as well because it took me sooooooooo long to embrace it and if I knew then what I know now... well.  I know it now so I'm hoping to save others some time and grief.

First, the immediately practical.

Tantrums and meltdowns can look very similar, especially when carried out by a two year old.  The primary difference is why they are happening and what they communicate.  You can tell the difference if you look at the scenario going on around the kid, what happened before and during, and also with practice by looking straight at the kid, listening to breathing patterns, hands over ears, not noticing whether you are noticing, etc.

I want to say straight off that I believe all two year old people are capable of having both tantrums and meltdowns, and will do so depending on the scenario.  The trouble with being autistic is that you have meltdowns a lot more and people think they are tantrums, so people think you are constantly having tantrums.  That is why I really want to speak about the difference, even though I am ultimately going to suggest a similar approach (but not for the exact same reasons, funnily enough).

In a tantrum, I am angry, trying to get something, or work it.  I am thinking something like this:

"I will NOT leave this SPOT until THOSE CHOCODRAGONS ARE IN THAT CART!!!!!  HOW IS IT THAT NOBODY HEARS ME!!!  I AM IBBY!!!!  I WILL NOT BE IGNORED!!!!!"  On the outside, I may be sitting there screaming, kicking, etc.  Chances are, I will look at my parents or guardians to be sure they are noticing.  This is often the primary dead giveaway.

In a meltdown, I am panicky, needing to escape, overwhelmed with too much or conflicting information or sensory horribleness, and cannot take it anymore.  I am thinking something like this:

"Aaaaaaaaauuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  If I could think straighter, so that words were involved, it might translate to something like, "My ears can't take the nightmarish din!  The lights burn holes in my eyes even if I close them, and my head throbs in a rhythm different from the muzak, which is torturing me!  People swarm they swarm why are they talking so much talk so loud dissonant why does she yell at him that man might want not to whistle when he has no pitch ack and the peanut butter is in the wrong place! THE WRONG PLACE THAT IS IT I AM DONE FOR!"  But these thoughts are rapid and really sound more like my first rendition. On the outside, I may be sitting there screaming, kicking, etc.  Chances are, if I'm looking at my parent or guardian at all, I look more drowning than angry, but probably cannot look, and have my hands over my ears or hitting the floor the cart-handle or even myself, eyes screwed shut in attempted escape.

So, tantrum is anger, and meltdown is panic.

Here is why scolding doesn't work either time, and there is a better way, but when you hear it, I hope it will change your life.  I think when my mother came up with it, life with baby-me became ever so much less of a nightmare in public.  :)

In a tantrum situation, you may scold, but because tantrum is anger, that sets up a power struggle.  You cannot really win this power struggle, because your two year old is totally not embarrassed about acting like that in public, whereas you are mortified by the insensitive, judgmental people staring daggers at you.  Kid wins.

In a meltdown situation, you may scold, but because the kid is totally overloaded, chances are you are probably not getting through at all and nothing you say is even being heard over the din of the heinous fluorescent audiovisual buzzhum mixed with the everlasting human yimmer-yammer and the competitions of the multiple musics and lasers and cash registers out of rhythm off of key and the whooshing thud of the heartbeat of panic trying to block it out when he can't even trust where the peanut butter is....  Not useful.

My mother's magic fix works equally in both situations for either reason.

Here's how it goes.

First, very early on in the process, my mother quietly, calmly would say something like, "If you settle down, we can stay." This would make there be a choice if it happened to be a tantrum where I could cut it out still and might want to choose self-regulation and staying.  If it was going to be a meltdown, of course I did not want to stay, and also I would not be able to settle down, so this was a win-win item of communication.

Then, if I wouldn't or couldn't settle down, we would promptly leave the environment, just immediately pick up and go, into a quiet place, preferably as green as possible, which is calming.  Here is why this is a good idea in either circumstance:

1.  The tantrum: There goes the Chocodragons, not in the cart, no chance of getting in the cart ever, and the judgy busybodies who think they could do so much better than you don't have time to formulate that thought, let alone stare meaningfully at you trying to let you know it.  Meanwhile, if this happens consistently, I am soon to learn that the tantrum is the least effective method of getting my way known to childkind.

2.  The meltdown: You are my hero.  The world had become a roiling nightmare and you fixed it.  When this feeling of overwhelm keeps happening to me I will probably keep melting down at some point because I cannot help it, but I will feel calmer in general knowing that you are there and you know how to make things better.  My general anxiety level will decrease as my trust increases because I have been understood.

It made me very happy to read where you said you wanted your son to be thoroughly and authentically himself. I think it is not possible to prevent unkindness from coming anyone’s way, because people are going to be how they are going to be, even if this includes some unfortunate meanness and ignorance.  But having such a supportive mother in your corner who gives you the confidence to be yourself with a clean heart and courageous mind makes a lot of unkindness bounce off of you in ways it would not bounce off if you were more insecure because you could tell your family wished you were different.  So your son is off to a very, very good start as far as I can see!  Let the mean people change; there is no reason for people who are minding their own business just being themselves to change in order to suit the mean people.  This is a thing the world needs to learn to do better and I clearly see that you can be one of the right-minded ones with good instincts who help get this new direction flowing.

The last thing I wanted to talk about was that you have the possibility of much community if you are interested and do not have to do things alone.  I really don’t want you to have to feel sad and lonely because just from your writing I can tell you are awesome.  Other evidence I have that you are awesome is that people on the spectrum are known to be kind of on the picky side, and your partner is now known by me to be on the spectrum, so, logically, a picky person picked you, therefore… you follow me.  More reason to believe you are awesome.

Chapters of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network  (ASAN) which your partner could join anywhere work differently, but I know the one in Chicago also welcomes family members such as yourself who value neurodiversity, which is to say you are someone who wants people to be able to be authentically themselves instead of having to pretend to be “normal,” whatever that means.  I don’t know where you live, of course.  But feel free to contact me back again to put you in touch with the communities in your area.  On Facebook, also, if you enjoy networking online, there are many satisfying ways to make friends who understand, and I could introduce you around, if you feel that is something you would like to have happen.

The fact that your partner is on the spectrum himself could be a wonderful resource if he is in a place where he is ready to embrace it.  He might not be, though.  It took me a while to feel good about it because of the way the world can be.  But things are changing now, for the better.  If he is OK with  his own diagnosis, though, the sky is the limit on ways he can be a role model.  There are excellent groups also on the internet for AS parenting I can hook you up with.

The last thing I want to say is that if other things come up and you just want to write back here instead of getting into communities and everything, please feel free and welcome!  You don’t have to “come out” on Facebook or anything, and I’m not trying to make you do that.  Just be Anonymous if you like, but tell me you are Goldie :) .

All the best,


  1. Gosh, you're brilliant. Especially because, I've been doing with Juliette and Charlotte, pretty much what Jennie did with you.

    More excellent advice on this blog. I am so happy you finally did this. xoxo, Your Super Brilliant Sistah P.S. Goldie is awesome.

  2. (((((((ibby)))))) I am so blessed to be your friend. I wish we had been friends when my son was young. ((((goldie))) she really is awesome.

  3. Ibby, this is helpful for moms of kids on and off the spectrum. Thank you for taking the time to respond in such a thorough, useful way. I will keep this in mind with Alex, as at this point I simply know that he is on the human spectrum and capable of at least the tantrum phenomenon. :]
    Joyce Hagen-McIntosh

  4. I love this. I love how you're talking about how meltdown and tantrum are different, and I love how you have a solution that works for BOTH, even with the fact that they are different. I'm saving this for when I become the autistic mother of probably autistic kids.

    1. Alyssa I think you will be an awesome mother. It is great to see you :)

  5. Loved this post, such an important and easily misunderstood distinction! Thank you for your wonderful response.

  6. this post is terrific and I, too, am grateful to have found you. I am always looking for insight into my son. He is verbal, but mostly echolailic. Novel communication is much more challenging. Anything I can read to give me insight beyond my own observations is so incredibly helpful. thank you for sharing your personal life and beautiful mind with us.

  7. I am a mild Aspie with a very introverted Aspie husband. We have a son with very high functioning Autism. Our son has significant anxiety issues that go along with the Autism. So, we actually see meltdowns, tantrums, and panic attacks. A way that I can tell them apart is during a tantrum, he is more angry and stubborn and trying to get his own way. He is more "in your face" about it. During a meltdown, he is more likely to curl into a ball, or at least curl his shoulders and look down. He does not seem to be able to speak or hear during a meltdown. He IS able to read and process communication that way. So, I carry a white board and a dry erase marker so that I can communicate during a meltdown. Simple things like "I can choose to: 1)breathe and try to calm down, 2)stand up and walk on my own to leave, or 3)hide under my jacket" work well. He can point to a choice, and it gives him some control on how to cope with the situation. As he calms down, he can start to write his thoughts or needs long before he can speak them.
    We have recently started seeing panic attacks. I actually see this as a major step forward. They are very much like the meltdowns, but he is still able to communicate and tell me what is causing all the anxiety. His executive functioning has shut down due to the panic (as opposed to a tantrum), so he just can't see any way out. Since I have had panic attacks for 25 years, I am able to understand how this feels. Most of the time, I can't try to communicate much with him or reason with him in this state. Finding ways to help him calm down really helps. Again, using the white board is good, because it removes my emotion from the equation. With the white board, I can write something and put it down near him without actually interacting directly with him. He has the choice of whether or not to read what I wrote (curiosity really helps here) and how quickly to respond. If I try to talk to him, it is more intense because he can feel me looking at him and he knows that I am waiting for an answer. With the white board, I just set it down and move away and keep watch out of the corner of my eye to see how he responds.
    Another GREAT way to communicate with all kids is in the car. You are driving and your eyes are on the road. You are not staring at them. My son is much more likely to talk to me about things that are bothering him while we are in the car. I read that as a tip for talking to a teenager, but it works wonders with kids on the autism spectrum also.

    1. Dear Whoever,

      These are AWESOME ideas. I love the whiteboard one. I use these to teach math, but what a kickass concept you added. This is one I will for sure try when my boys are older and maybe in my marriage due to my self.

      About the car... also brilliant! For that reason I have been practicing driving the car with the radio on so that I can hear and drive at the same time. My goal is to be able to do the full multi-task by the time the kids need me to do so.

      Please come on here a lot and add your genius voice to the advice!!!!!!!!!!


      PS Panic attacks bite. I'm sorry you know that so well.

  8. What a brilliant post, and a brilliant thread of replies! <3

  9. You're my hero! I needed to read this.

  10. Just... wonderful.

    And, you know... this explains a lot about how my mother and I used to talk when I was visiting them down in Costa Rica. We'd have to drive for a while to get anywhere, and I felt like I could talk about a lot of things with her that way. Whereas when Mom and Dad talk to me at home (even now) I have a hard time avoiding meltdowns.

    Think I'm going to pass this on to my parents and all my siblings (two of whom have children, one of whom is pregnant with her third, and the other of whom is a speech language pathologist, and so can pass this along to other parents!). Thanks for this, Ibby, and all commenters!

    ;) tagAught

  11. Love love love tagAught xx and loveexplosions xx - I see you here now xx Happy Mother's Day!

  12. Ibby, thanks. I have been doing autism advocacy for over 20 years on a small scale in Ontario, and explaining autistic symptoms and behaviours in constructive ways to parents and educators. I really appreciate what you have written here; I also have found, for myself and for other autistics in melt-down, that green and quiet spaces are profoundly restorative. You use different words, but our descriptions of the difference, and what to do, are very similar.

    However, for educators dealing with tantrums, I recommend that they prevent any harm of others, but otherwise just wait patiently (not angry, not bored, and definitely not triggered) for the child having a tantrum to realize that there are better ways to communicate. The whiteboard idea is a great one, too, which I will add.

    The one thing that I teach that I do not see mentioned her is the skill of noticing "tells". Each one of us autistics has a series of behaviours which are likely to show the escalation process, as we get closer and closer to a meltdown. The more that you can begin to identify the indicators of this escalation, and tag them to how close a melt-down is, the easier it is to circumvent an actual melt-down. Thanks so much for what you are doing here; it is so needed.
    Appreciation, Jackie McMillan (Asperger's), Thrive With Autism