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About Autistic Escalation and Meltdown

NOTE:  This page is currently in the process of being developed.  Selected material is currently available below.  Additional material will be added in the near future.  Please check back as this page evolves. Thank you!

What is Autistic Escalation and Meltdown?

To begin the discussion on escalation and meltdown, let's begin with a brief definition and a description of associated behaviors:

Differences between Temper Tantrums and Meltdown

One of the most common misconception about an autistic meltdown is that it is a common, everyday temper tantrum.  The parent or caregiver is often scorned by members of the public as being unable to control the individual.  It is important to point out that while the physical aggressions associated with autistic escalation and meltdown appears similar to a temper tantrum, the two events are completely different. 

A common childhood temper tantrum usually is the result of a person, typically a toddler, either being deprived of something that they want, having something taken away from them.  It is an attempt to manipulate an individual, usually a parent (or a caregiver or another toddler), into getting their way, and therefore requires that person to be actively involved in the tantrum.  If the parent is able to completely disengage from being the “audience,” there is no benefit to sustaining the tantrum.  Likewise, if the parent gives in, the goal is achieved, the tantrum was successful and there is no need to continue.  During the course of a tantrum, the toddler may pause the disruption to check to see if the parent remains engaged.  They may be distracted from the tantrum by being offered an attractive alternative.  Sometimes the threat of discipline is effected at thwarting a tantrum, especially in older children.  Finally, despite the fact the tantrum may appear reckless, the child is seldom out of control.  They are not likely to harm themselves, others, or objects that they “treasure.”  If an injury occurs or they damage a favorite object, they usually will be “shocked” out of the tantrum and immediately will become focused on what has just occurred.

Since escalation/meltdown behavior is not a form of manipulation, an “audience” is not required, either to precipitate or continue the behaviors.  The individual will not check for engagement, and the participation (or lack thereof) of the caregiver is of no concern. It is a reactive mechanism that causes the individual to lose control.  Even if the event begins as being goal-oriented, once the incident escalates to meltdown, obtaining the goal will not quell the behavior.  Likewise, if an alternative is offered, even if the alternative is highly desirable in most circumstances, it may not be acknowledged during escalation and meltdown.   

Literally, during the course of escalation and meltdown, the person with autism is losing or has lost control.  They may even know that they have lost control, but are unable to regain control on their own.  You may need to help the individual regain control.  Remember:

Attempting to resolve the meltdown by threatening disciplinary action is both ineffective and not appropriate.  The individual with autism will not have the ability to understand the consequences, and even if they can, they will lack the ability to alter their behavior.  In fact, such threats may very well add stress, further aggravating the overstimulated individual and worse an already deteriorating situation.  This is also true of just about any physical interaction with the patient, even gestures intended to be reassuring. 

During meltdown, the person with autism is not able to process how their actions and behaviors affect others.  In other words, if there is a chair in front of them, and there is a desire to throw the chair, they will throw the chair.  While they may not throw the chair purposefully at an individual, they will also lack any regard of individuals who may be in the line of fire.  This is true, even if the bystanders are regarded as friends.  They will not be able to realize (at that particular time) that throwing the chair may cause serious injury if it strikes someone. Unlike a temper tantrum, the individual engaged in an autistic meltdown will lack any protective instinct to avoid injury to themselves as a result of their actions.  If injury does occur, it will either have no effect on the meltdown, or it will increase the severity as a result of the additional stimulation.  Favored objects or toys will not be avoided, consciously or subconsciously, from becoming damaged in the wake of the event.     

The final slide below summarizes important facts about escalation and meltdown.

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