Sensory Meltdown or Tantrum

Do you know the difference

between a

Sensory Meltdown and a Tantrum? 

Sensory Meltdown



As a mom of two boys with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, Meltdowns have become an “unwelcome” part of life for the boys and for us as a family.

With Conor I am almost a step ahead and can pre-empt a Meltdown before it starts. There are times of course when he reaches full blown meltdown and I am caught off guard and find myself stressed and panicking, as I try to help him and at the same time try to protect myself and the children around us so that no one gets hurt in the process accidentally as he lashes out.

Jack on the other hand is a whole other story! He is so temperamental anything is possible at any time! Literally, I can never tell where we are with Jack he can go from happy and relaxed into full self-injurious, meltdown.

I have been in public with Jack before when he goes into meltdown and the horrible things people have said are unrepeatable for the most part. They think he is having a tantrum, acting out and one woman passing me out side the post office one day told me he really needed a “good slap”.

Just awful. But it got me thinking what do the public (people without children with Special Needs who have never experienced a Meltdown) really understand to be a Meltdown and why is it so often mistaken for a tantrum! They are two completely different things believe me I know from first hand experience.

Meltdowns v Tantrums

So in this short post I will be explaining the main differences between a Tantrum and Meltdown. Neither of which can be cured by a “good slap” as I was advised to give by a very unusual woman in town. I am only thankful my children are mine and not hers. Don’t forget to download your FREE Meltdown Support Cards at the end of this post! 

Tantrums or Meltdowns?

Here we will look at the 5 key points and how they apply differently to a Tantrum situation and a Meltdown Situation.



Is the child seeking something? What do they want? A tantrum will usually be “over” something the child wants, be that a chocolate bar, permission to do something they want to do, there is a reason behind it. There is a demand they are making and they are using their behaviour (tantrum) as a means to get it.



Child is lashing out at himself or those around him. They are not seeking something or demanding something from you. It is caused by neurology not because they are seeking (demanding) something. The child is not using the behaviour to obtain something, they are not choosing for their system to become overwhelmed. Read THIS post to understand Sensory Processing better. The child has reached a point where they have lost control, they may be a danger to themselves or to others and are lashing out, there is no intended direction or means to an end in what is happening. It is happening to them as much as it is happening at all.






The child is carrying out the tantrum to get your attention, reaction, they want you to be interested in what is happening so they get their “demand”. They want you to give in so they get what they want.The tantrum can be fuelled by the attention it receives.



The child has no interest in whether you are watching their behaviour. They come to the point where they do not even know what they are doing themselves. They are not considering your reaction whatsoever. No amount of attention will stop the meltdown once it has started.



The child is in control of their behaviour, they know why they are behaving the way they do. They can stop the behaviour when they want. The child is still aware of their environment and their personal safety.


A child having a sensory meltdown has no ability to stop what is happening. They have totally lost control and depending on what is occurring could be in grave danger of harming themselves as they will totally lose awareness of their environment and their own personal safety.


Slow to end


A child having a tantrum will usually be able to be calmed once they receive what they want or once they realise realistically they will not get what ever it is that they want. It will stop once you give the child what they want.



A child having a meltdown has lost control and cannot stop the meltdown once it has started. It essentially burns them out, through exhaustion it usually abates. It can be a very long process from start to finish once a Meltdown begins. The child cannot stop the meltdown once it starts it doesn’t matter if you give into whatever was the original trigger for the meltdown. Once it stops it has to run its course and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Mostly the main thing you can do to protect the child, is make sure they are not in any real danger and let it run its course.

Knowing the difference 

Now children with SPD and Autism are prone to having Meltdowns but naturally as children they can have a tantrum too just like any other children. The key is knowing the difference.

If you ever find yourself in the situation I did out side my Post Office with Jack mid meltdown and you get some very unwelcome advice, I have a solution for you that I now bring with me in my purse. I have created some FREE Printable Information cards you can bring with you and hand to unhelpful people who feel they should comment when you are doing your best. It is of course some people comment in a well-meaning way, but I cannot fathom how giving a child “a good slap” could ever be said in a well being way, so for ladies such as that lady, I will have my cards with me and she can take one on her walk away from my situation.

You can find your FREE PRINTABLE Meltdown check list cards by clicking on the Infograph photo below. 

meltdown checklist

I would love to hear what you think are the differences between Tantrums and Meltdowns? 


If you loved this post you should also check out :SPD Info Graph

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