Ask an Aspie: Meltdowns VS. Tantrums and How to Respond to Them Appropriately

I’ve been waiting for about a month to write this particular post, but between needing time to myself and just needing to get myself back in action after the start of the new year, this was the soonest I was able to get this out to all of you. I apologize for that. It really shouldn’t have taken me this long to get my act together in the new year.

In any case, I’m back, it’s a new year for the Aspie Epilogue, and now is an excellent opportunity for that Ask an Aspie segment I’ve been meaning to write.

Before the varied assortment of Winter holidays, a page I followed on Facebook (up until this point, and this is exactly why I stopped following it) posted a link to an article with a video clip of the tail-end of what they called a “tantrum” from a child on the spectrum, which involved restraining the child. Both the page and the article championed this method of restraining the child face-down on pillows until he stopped screaming. I will not link to this article because I’m afraid it may give parents a flawed perspective of how to handle this kind of behavior. Personally, I think the only reason the child calmed down was because he simply exhausted himself and couldn’t carry on anymore. It happens; I’ve been there. I was once a child, too. I had many of these situations. Some were handled properly; some of them weren’t. That’s not what I’m here to discuss.

To provide some context to this child’s situation, the article mentioned that his mother allowed a video crew to film him as part of a televised documentary without explaining this to her son (RED FLAG #1). The moment they entered, the child figured out what was going on and had what I will term a “meltdown.” They called it a “tantrum” (RED FLAG #2). Their chosen method of calming the child down was to restrain him face-down on pillows (RED FLAG #3) and record the incident to share on television and social media, which is where I found it (RED FLAG #4).

Where to begin with what’s wrong with this picture? I guess I’ll just go in chronological order as I found the red flags:

RED FLAG #1: She didn’t explain it to her son.

Folks, any decision pertaining to a person’s disability, whether or not they ultimately get a say in the decision making process, should ALWAYS be discussed with that person so that they understand what is going to happen to them. Period. The more people are on the same page, the less likely people are going to be upset. I think if she had explained it to her son beforehand, this wouldn’t have happened to this extent, or at the very least, the anger would have been worked through before the camera crew arrived.

RED FLAG #2: Meltdowns vs Tantrums.

I’ll elaborate more on this after the red flags, but this was not a tantrum. This was a meltdown, and understandably so. To me, the difference relies upon the motivation for the incident, or what I’ll call the “inciting incident.” If the inciting incident is I want a candy bar, but Mom says I can’t have it so I act out in a public display, that’s a tantrum. If, however, the inciting incident is too many people in the room flashing too many bright lights and making too many noises that are too loud for me to physically handle, that is a meltdown. I believe the latter is what occurred in this instance, not the former. Too many people don’t understand the difference.

RED FLAG #3: They restrained him face-down on pillows.

I’m going to go ahead and be blunt when I say this: THERE IS A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO RESTRAIN YOUR CHILD WHEN HE OR SHE IS ACTING OUT! LEARN THE RIGHT WAY! PLEASE!

When I worked at the Kinney Center, we had to learn Nonviolent Physical Crisis Intervention (NPCI) and certify that we were up to date on procedures once per year. There are certain steps to take before resorting to NPCI, which if successful, will calm the child down before he or she acts out. If you need to resort to NPCI (as a LAST resort), there are certain steps to take afterwards to ensure that the child is calm, that you are calm, and to maintain a rapport and trust between the two of you. As for the actual NPCI, itself, there are specific holds that ensure that the child can still breathe properly, and that he or she cannot harm you nor anyone else. In fact, I’d be surprised if he or she could do more than pinch his or her own armpits in those holds. The key takeaway from this is that your child is not able to harm himself or herself nor anyone else, and you are not harming your child. I would recommend learning NPCI through the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) or a similar organization.

What you don’t do is just restrain the child willy-nilly in ways that the child may not be able to breathe or in any other way that might bring harm to your child. You certainly don’t do it face-down on a pillow. What are you trying to do, suffocate him? It doesn’t require rocket science to learn the proper techniques, so please don’t put your child in danger when trying to calm him or her down. Moving along…

RED FLAG #4: They recorded the meltdown and shared it with the public.

I know I’ve often said I don’t have anything to hide, but even for me, there are moments in my life I’d rather not relive. My various meltdowns fall verily under that category. Aside from the potential for cyberbullying or even bullying in general, they haven’t handled any part of this situation correctly so far, so to then trumpet it over the internet as the “right way to do it” concerns me for the sake of other children with ASD whose parents may not know better and try this for themselves. From a more personal perspective, when I calm down from a meltdown, I feel very self-conscious about my behavior during said meltdown, so why would I want any video footage of it floating around in cyberspace for all to see? I’m sure I can’t be the only Aspie to feel that way, either.

So, here’s my interpretation of the events as I believe they actually happened:

Mom brings in a camera crew for a documentary about her son’s ASD without telling her son. The camera crew arrives, sonny boy figures out what’s going on and melts down. Mom responds by restraining her son incorrectly, face-down on pillows while the film crew records the incident. Mom then shares the tail-end of the meltdown over the internet, thus shaving out the bulk of what actually occurred and making the whole incident seem more mild than it probably was in reality, conning countless parents into believing this is how to properly respond to a meltdown, all while calling it a “tantrum.”

So what is a meltdown and how exactly does it differ from a tantrum in the first place?

A tantrum is the acting out incident that occurs when somebody doesn’t quite get his way. The theory behind this is, “I didn’t get my way, so I’m going to give you a hard time until you acquiesce to my demands.” Tantrums don’t necessarily have to be exclusive to those with an ASD.

A meltdown is the acting out incident that occurs when somebody reaches maximum sensory overload, maximum emotional overload, or just a situation he physically cannot cope with and cannot figure out how to handle appropriately. Think of this person as a nuclear reactor having a core meltdown. The meltdown has already begun; it cannot be prevented. It will end in one of two ways:

1. The Three Mile Island Way: Everybody plays their role and does their job correctly that a full nuclear crisis is averted. The person acting out calms down and everybody moves forward the best they can.

2. The Chernobyl Way: The meltdown cannot be stopped and a full nuclear crisis commences. The consequences of this can seriously impact the lives of the person acting out and his loved ones for quite a while afterward. These consequences can include arrests, commitments to rehab, or just broken trust and relationships. *Personally, I’d rather end the first way if I had to melt down.

Sad to say, but I’ve actually resulted in both in my life. Fortunately, it only took ending the Chernobyl Way once to get my act together, but the unavoidable truth is it was preventable. Nobody knew how to prevent it at the time. I’d like to think we all in my family have learned something or another from that incident. I’m just glad nobody filmed it and shared it on the internet. The same cannot be said for that young boy who was blindsided by a camera crew thanks to his mother.

That, my dear readers, is the full answer.

Published by Jon Dorfman

I created The Aspie Dialogues. I like music/rhythm video games, working on video production, and creative writing. Most importantly of all, I love all my subscribers to the blog. Thank you all so much for your undying support... Even when I haven't posted for a while. May you find peace with yourself, within yourself. Rock on, Spectrumites!

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  1. You have given a very thorough evaluation of this whole situation. I like your explanation of meltdowns vs. tantrums. It must have been difficult to share some of this info, yet I believe that beyond being cathartic, it brings some value to the pain you have endured and worked through earlier in your life. This is valuable writing JD. I am proud of you, son.

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