Meltdowns and tantrums: know the difference

I’m vexed at how the word “meltdown” is being slowly hijacked by the general population, and used to describe someone having a massive tantrum. Let’s be clear right from the start: an autistic meltdown is not a tantrum. Not even remotely. Not ever.

A tantrum is defined by Chambers (12th ed.) as “a sudden fit of childish, uncontrolled bad temper or rage”, and has the synonyms: temper, rage, fury, storm, outburst, fit, flare-up, blow-up, scene, paroxysm, paddy, and hissy fit. A tantrum is what people (aged two onwards) have when they’re angry about not getting their own way.

Meltdown (in the non-nuclear sense) hasn’t made it into Chambers yet, but online sources define it as “an emotional breakdown” (The Free Dictionary), “a very fast loss of emotional self-control” (Merriam Webster), and “an uncontrolled emotional outburst or a mental collapse” (Oxford Dictionaries). Synonyms include: freak-out, crack-up, fit, disintegration, collapse, tantrum, hissy fit, breakdown, angry, and crazy.

Sigh.

What is a meltdown?
Firstly, let me tell you again what a meltdown is not: it is not a tantrum, a hissy fit, or a mere loss of emotional control – any emotions I experience are the result of the meltdown, not the cause of it. In reality, it goes much, much deeper than that: a meltdown is a processing failure, like when a computer becomes overloaded with too many instructions, and goes haywire. A meltdown is a loss of cognitive control – I can no longer think. If we use the analogy of an epileptic fit as a hardware problem, a meltdown is the software equivalent.

What triggers a meltdown?
Many of my stress-triggers are the same as neurotypical people’s (anxiety, fatigue, illness, hormones, low blood-sugar, conflict, overwork, etc.). Then add the autistic stressors that neurotypical people somehow filter out: noise (particularly sudden loud noise), bright lights (particularly flashing ones), visual clutter (e.g. too much mess, traffic, people), frenetic activity, unwanted physical contact (including from my own clothes), any change or disruption to normal routine (including expected change, like going on holiday or redecorating), having to socialise (including with friends), all the noise in my head, etc. Throw too many of those at me at once, and I just cease to function.

Sometimes, it might look like the meltdown has been triggered by my not getting my own way, e.g. disruption of my plans; but in that case, the need to work out how to manage my day differently from how I’d planned (in order to accommodate someone else’s plans), on top of all the other things I’m trying to manage, becomes the final processing-request that freaks out the computer. It’s not that I’m unwilling to engage with the idea, I just can’t process it. Not at the same time as everything else.

What does meltdown feel like?
For me, the only emotions I feel during meltdown are extreme frustration, panic and fear. I am not angry – not in any way.

I’m frustrated by not being able to function properly (often because I’m failing to understand something, or make myself understood), panicked by being overwhelmed, and I’m scared because I can’t work out what just happened, what is happening now, and what is going to happen next. It’s not just that I can’t think straight – I can’t think at all. To begin with, the words I speak might stop making sense. I might roar, scream, shout, swear, and/or cry. I might pace about, and rarely I might throw things or hit things (only things, never people) – but even then… even if I appear to be in a rage… let me say this again: I am not angry.

Alternatively, I might go straight to the secondary stage (which I call ‘shutdown’ – like when a computer freezes altogether), where I can no longer work out how to speak or move. In this stage I curl up in a ball and become mute. I’ll probably close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and want to cover my head. I’m trying to shut it all out.

So you see, a meltdown is not a tantrum, and a tantrum is not a meltdown. They are totally different things. This is not to say some autistic people don’t have tantrums too, but it’s vitally important to know the difference.

A tantrum is a hissy fit, where the person is acting out his/her feelings of being hard done by. A meltdown is a loss of executive function brought about by cognitive overload, or in more simple terms – I’m temporarily unable to do anything that involves thinking, i.e. reason, remember, plan, problem-solve, or perform tasks: there is only chaos in my mind.

How to help me during meltdown (any hopefully other aspies too)

  • Please don’t panic – meltdown is a temporary state (like an epileptic fit), and I will recover.
  • I don’t need a doctor or medication – all I need is peace, quiet, and time.
  • If possible, get me to somewhere quiet – preferably with subdued lighting or no lighting at all. I will recover most quickly in silent darkness!
  • If there is a window, please close the blind/curtain.
  • Please do not touch me – very important (although for some people a hug will be calming).
  • Please ask other people to stay away, and try to ensure no one comes bursting into the room.
  • Please ask “what can I do to help?” but don’t press for an answer; many of us become mute in meltdown.
  • A glass of water will probably be welcome.
  • Please don’t offer or ask me anything else more complicated – I won’t be able to process the question.
  • You are dealing with a highly intelligent adult, so please resist any temptation to speak in a sing-song voice.
  • Please stay with me if you can, but at a distance, and please don’t try to make small-talk; this will seriously delay my recovery.
  • Bear in mind that once recovered, I will be exhausted, humiliated, and embarrassed, and will probably just want to go home. This is okay – once I’m functioning again, I’m perfectly safe to leave on my own.
  • I might not be able to express my thanks effectively at the time, so please don’t be offended if I simply walk away. I will be enormously grateful for your care and understanding.

This is a very personal subject, and one that’s close to my heart. Thank you for reading to the end.

©Leigh Forbes


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28 Responses to Meltdowns and tantrums: know the difference

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  1. Barbara Kirk says:

    I feel sure that I have had meltdowns through my life – loud noises can be a trigger as well as changes in routine.

  2. Phillip says:

    Wow Leigh,
    Thank you so much for writing this article!
    I just came across your post when googling one of my Asperger behaviours, since I recently am 150% sure that I’m an Aspie.
    99% of your article rang so true for me, it brought up a strong need to sob, but instead I held my head and laughed. It was not at all funny! It was rather so sad that I have been mis-understood on this and many other subjects since early childhood and just discovered my Aspergers has been with me all of my 56 years! I felt sad, relieved, finally understood and simultaneously had flashbacks to my many meltdowns throughout my life….specific ones with specific people.

    I am not normally driven to comment on people’s posts in general. With yours I didn’t seem to have a choice. You touched a very raw chord within me, and for that I am grateful. Thank you so much for sharing. I hope you are travelling well these days, or at least better than you had been.

    In gratitude,

    Phillip

  3. Robyne says:

    My adult daughter has (all her life) been unable to remember directions – by that I mean geographical directions. She can drive down the same street every day on her way to work and she’ll ask “which way do I go?”. Even as a little girl she would walk to school and forget the direction. I notice more and more that many of her traits when she was little as being Aspbergers characteristics – she has never been diagnosed and has held down a successful career but never connected with others. There are many of the “signs” but I wonder has anyone heard of the direction thing?

  4. Mel says:

    My partner frequently, and I believe tactically, accuses me of having a ‘meltdown’ if I am annoyed with him. I believe I have had one or two true meltdowns in our time together so he has seen what a real one is like. I have 2 intereptations of this behaviour and both upset me. Interpretation 1, he saw those meltdowns as massive tantrums and these instances when I am annoyed in a very typical relationship friction way, ie walking out of the room to end a pointless disagreement or telling him to leave me alone because I feel he is being unfair, as small tantrums.. And in his mind there is no phenomenon of an Asperger’s meltdown. Or 2, he knows I am not really having a true meltdown but uses that term because he knows it will put me on the back foot, dredge up feelings of shame and self-doubt and distract from the minor shitty thing he has done. I have pointed out a few times that it is really damaging to my trust in him to throw that word around unnecessarily but he does it still. What really hurts is that usually the thing he is doing this sand-in-eyes type distraction from is sooo minor. Just daily friction that an ‘oh I see how I inconvenienced you dear, pardon me’ ‘okay, no problem pal’ conversation would put to bed.
    Has anyone else experienced this? Or maybe you have some other perspectives that might help. It is the only thing that truely makes me considering leaving him.

  5. Gary says:

    I suspect I may have enxperienced a few Meltdowns and a shutdown or two, but have no memory beyond abject terror of any of thes occurrences. Iy would appear that not only is congative terminated, but so is detailed memory formation. All that is left is a purely emotional memory spaning a gap in my mind. A gap that may be seconds, minutes of any period inbetween. I have never lashed out at anyone for any reason, thankfully.

    I do know that when I “reboot”, to use your analog of a computer, I have been utterly confused and on edge as the terror ebbs away.

  6. Trent Phillips says:

    Thanks for the great article! I did not discover that I was an Aspie until recently. For most of my life, I never knew why I was how I was. I kept telling my wife that I was not ANGRY, and that I cannot remember what was said during our arguments (usually over stupid things). Then I discovered I was having explosive meltdowns. But she still believed I was angry (Because I say some pretty hurtful things during the meltdowns apparently) Now she has confirmation that I am not angry, and we can work on how to deal with my meltdowns, how to try to limit or reduce the severity and nature of them, and most of all…help her heal form the emotional scars that she has accumulated over 22 years of being married to me. It saddens me that I have hurt her so deeply, :( She is a remarkable woman and mother for putting up with so much for so long and not knowing why.

  7. Kat says:

    I am posting this quite late, but please feel free to comment. I have never been diagnosed as being on the spectrum, but I definitely do not feel…neurotypical. I empathize well for the most part, but many, many of the signs associated with Aspergers or HFA seem to fit me, including: obsessive interests, including interests in things than I feel compelled to study about but cannot explain the attraction to (such as movie dates. When I was a child, I started memorizing movie dates and now can tell you the release date for just about every movie I have ever seen, and many thousands of others); light sensitivity/ sound sensitivity; extreme tactile sensitivity; pressure issues (I used to put books over my legs as a child to help myself fall asleep); I have been accused of rambling about things and not shutting up (and for which I feel really crappy about…but when I get excited about a topic…I tend to almost forget, and the facts ‘take over’ and then I feel ashamed again); not always knowing if someone is joking with me (unless I know that person well and understand their sense of humor); extreme pickiness with my food (I do not like most solid foods, and prefer to drink liquids over foods) and I have been accused of humming oddly (one note or an odd group of notes) without realizing. This happens, I realize, when I am tired. I also fidget and tap my fingers a lot against surfaces and find it calms me. If I am stressed, I will listen to music to try to drown out coworkers etc. Many of the signs that seem to fit me most….seem to be sensory based, but I also find social interaction difficult because I know people see me as odd, and then I find myself obsessing about if they are mocking me behind my back. I could probably provide more little things (I have no sense of left or right…not sure if that has anything to do with anything, and I have synaesthesia) and did not talk until relatively lately, but then in complete sentences. I love animals because they are non-judgmental.

    I do not believe I have ever had a meltdown as described above. I have had panic attacks. I have stayed in washrooms during Uni and cried and felt fear and not known why, and I also used to run in Uni when stressed. Sometimes to the point of exhaustion. But I have never screamed or had an obvious meltdown. I have often retreated to my bedroom after work, and just pulled the covers above my head on ‘bad days’ and then just stared at the wall. I notice sometimes that a voice in my head tells me to pull back and never talk and I used to fantasize about just going mute and never having to talk again.

    I know that’s not considered ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ but at the same time, everyone always called me ”too high strung” and a ”people pleaser,” so I guess my question is…do all people on the spectrum have overtly obvious meltdowns? I don’t think I have had one that qualifies, although I have had many instances where I soothe myself internally be repeating something to myself over and over again, or humming at a very low level. Even my mum has commented on the humming because I don’t always realize I am humming to begin with and it’s usually just a flat note and not a tune. I remember looking up temporal lobe epilepsy when I was younger, trying to understand what that could mean, because I often would feel a little disconnected. I also have episodes of depersonalization and derealization.

    Anyway, no one may see this…but if someone does….any feedback would be appreciated. I’ve only started reading about stimming, and I see that a lot of the examples are things I do or perhaps want to do, but refrain from doing, because I know it looks odd. However, when I am walking home alone after work, I will sometimes rub my hands back and forth as if I am trying to heat them up, just because the motion tends to relieve my anxiety?

    So many questions.

    Additionally, I was always in regular classrooms and attended Uni and such without special accomodations. I remember speaking to a professor once who was very kind, because I had a bit of a breakdown before a test I did not feel prepared for and ended up pacing and taking a bit of gravol to calm down. That day was the first and only time I recall ever feeling so out of control with this on-edge exhaustion that I was almost in tears because everything (lights, sounds of breathing and pencils etc.) were too strong and it was triggering panic. I still had to write the test, but he asked if I had ever been tested for Aspergers. And I remember thinking, ”I am just a little bit stressed.” (I ended up doing well on the exam, but the cost was severe).

    • You definitely sound as if you are on the spectrum. Get a diagnosis. Once you know it helps you understand yourself and helps others too. All the best.

  8. Keira says:

    I’m a teen aspie and luckily I’ve not had many meltdowns. It happens when I’m in sensory overloading situations or my routine is disrupted. I remember when I was little that I was going to do my homework and then play football with my dad. A boy started playing with my dad whilst I was doing my homework. It was always just me and my dad. This caused me to pain and get frustrated about what I was meant to do. I just had a meltdown. I was screaming and crying and kicking and punching the grass. I got stared at big time. Then I shutdown. My dad had to carry me home (I’m okay with being touched) whilst apologising to strangers and saying “Don’t be alarmed she just had a meltdown not a tantrum. It’s just an autistic thing.” That is a very unhappy memory.

  9. Jacob says:

    I used to get meltdowns when I was angry. I remember being incredibly ashamed throughout a meltdown. I know this is stupid but if there were any images of smiling fictional characters around (for example from an open book), I would feel very ashamed of myself for not being able to collect myself like they do.

    Sensorywise, I have shutdowns rather than meltdowns. This is usually if there’s too much noise (I have no issues with visual stimuli), so having an explosive meltdown would just make it worse, so my brain instead has an implosion shutdown. I can’t speak (I can form words to say in my mind but I can’t get them out), and I twitch uncontrollably unless I take the effort to intentionally stim in another way. Afterward, I feel tired and empty.

  10. me says:

    Interesting read and very useful. I recognized myself as a young child, but was beaten when having a “tantrum” (cultural norm at the time), so quickly learned to have a meltdown in private, away from others view. What I remember from these meltdowns was a total inability to control my mind and immense fear. I largely outgrown them if that can be said, but overload, stress and tiredness do make me recognize these building up again and I have to cut myself off society, in fact anyone – just need time and space alone. Sometimes hours, other times longer. My husband is very understanding and knows to provide these to me. My son is 8 now and we are awaiting diagnosis. His meltdowns are very similar to those described by you. He benefits from very tight hugs at certain point in the meltdown, but not at its fully blown peak. Before, at the built up it can help and at the end when he is out of it so to say – silent and exhausted… Thank you for writing this article, makes me think of myself and my son, of the similarities and differences. All autistic people are very different, but strangely very similar as well :)

  11. Marian says:

    This has been very enlightening Leigh, as was spending time with you m’dear. Thank you for spending time with us. Massive hugz xxx

  12. Miss H. says:

    Hi
    This is amazing. When I was a kid I used to have ‘tantrums’ but until I was doing my A Levels no one believed they weren’t put on. I was alone at home and everything seemed to go wrong; I got more and more frustrated and went into meltdown.

    All of a sudden, my mum came down the stairs and said, “What on earth’s the matter? She saw the shock on my face and realised at that moment that I wasn’t faking. I’m 42 now and still have them – I try so hard to keep them at bay, but sometimes cannot help it.

    Reading all these posts is very helpful. Thank you.
    Regards
    Miss H.

  13. Wendy says:

    When I was a preschool child I had meltdowns after school almost every day. I wasn’t trying to get anything- and I just wanted to be left alone. I grew out of them sometime around the age of 7. I think I just learnt when I needed to be alone before I boiled over. When I was 32yrs old a doctor told my husband and I that my husband was dying. I screamed and cried uncontrollably for 2-5 minutes. I just felt a total loss of control. I didn’t blame the doctor and he had obviously seen it before because he just waited calmly until I had regained control. Months later, during the funeral and for a few days after I had similar crying bouts. 17 years have passed without another meltdown.
    Really people use the term meltdown and temper tantrum interchangeably-When my daughter was 0-6 months old she would scream If placed on her back, including her infant car seat- When she was 2 months old a nurse said to me she had never seen such a young child have a temper tantrum! But I don’t think she was old enough to be manipulative.

  14. talia says:

    Just a small addition for those who are following this… while some autistic ppl need not to be touched, that is not the 100% rule. my son for instance will calm quickly if I give him a very tight hug or wrap a blanket tightly around him, If you are unsure of how to deal with someones melt down, ask them while they are calm as different ppl have different action plans.

  15. Tree says:

    With you permission, I plan to copy and paste your list of what to do when a meltdown occurs. These are very real to me, and extremely scary. I live in fear of having one in a public place with no one to watch over me or protect me from the outside world. I fear the world I have carefully created to live in will collapse if anyone discovers the truth, knows what’s inside of me, knows that what they think they see and know is purely an orchestrated illusion of my doing– not a reality. I can usually tell when one is building, the meltdown, but rarely when it will actually creep up on me. But when it does, there is little I can do but just ride the wave. And yes, the total exhaustion and embarrassment follows. Thank you for the list.

  16. Alan says:

    This is such an amazing site to have found,

    I am currently undiagnosed with aspergers but having read some of the articals from other people, I find there are may things that are the same for me in my day to day life. It was pointed out to me by the one close friend that i have and as she is a mental health nurse she suggested that i might be on the autistc spectrum, i dont make friends easily and often this can be a problem at work when i have a job, it seemed to be a problem at my last job as i was fired from thru no real fault of my own.

    i have completed one of the aspi tests that gives a graph for the results which said i was aspi and my dr has put in a referal for me to get an official diagnosis, so one step closer to getting the answers, I also have NF type 1 it would be interesting to know of there is any other people here who are on the spectrum that also have this

    Im not sure how to feel at the moment, to be honest im somewhat scared of what the out come will be,

  17. Sarah says:

    Thank you for that. It is beautifully written and very helpful in aiding understanding.

  18. Pamela DeCarlis says:

    I am a grandmother of a 13 yr old autistic non-verbal autistic child she has been having meltdowns since she was a baby however they are getting scary now and I am not sure how much of this is meltdowns or my Granddaughter wanting to get her own way, I am very confused could someone please share your experience with me. I am very concerned for my daughter who is not much bigger than my granddaughter and my daughter does tend to give the child her own way much of the time. Is there anything I can do as I feel I am starting to let her have what ever she wants to avoid he having a meltdown Please help.
    Thank you Pam

    • Alice says:

      Hi Pam,

      The first thing to understand is that a meltdown doesn’t often have an obvious cause. It is often a response to sensory overload – Too much going on at once. We find it hard to deal with lots of things going on around us at the same time. If your granddaughter has these for no apparent reason, this is probably the cause. Best advice would be to gently guide her to a quiet, dark room and allow her to calm down on her own.

      However, if your granddaughter is having “meltdowns” simply to get what she wants, it’s very probable that she’s trying to emulate a meltdown and use it to her advantage. This is very common, once autistic children know that they get attention during meltdowns they may attempt to do this. Unfortunately, it works quite often. So maybe sit down with your granddaughter and help her to understand the difference between “meltdown” and “tantrum”. Hope I helped.

    • Rita says:

      This question is older, but maybe it might be helpful if I add my answer.

      I am 40, I had meltdowns since I was a small child and I could never do anything about them. I am not officially diagnosed, but I am quite certain that Asperger is part of my reality. My nephew also had meltdowns, badly and my sister was in a very similar situation as you describe. There is the need and desire of parents to educate the child and teach him or her how to function successfully in a normal life and there is the disability of the child to deal with frustration or sensory overload.

      I will add some of my experience, focussing more on the emotional psychological triggers, as I feel the sensory ones are broadly discussed everywhere:

      1) unfair, personal critical remark can lead to constant stress and the build up of an Overload and consequently make a meltdown more likely as a relaxed, calm and secure Aspie will have certain abilities in dealing with frustration. So by providing the friendly emotional frame and a calm environment most of the time one can do a lot in order to help the Aspie child to learn to deal with intense emotions that are not yet a meltdown but could turn into one.

      2) if the meltdown is there, do not discuss it, do not complain, just accept that the child is having a hard time in dealing with a lot of contradictory impressions and emotions. In this moment any intervention should just be understanding and helping. Don’t reply to verbal attacks if they are there. They are not directed against you and any verbal argument or emotional reply will make things worse.

      3) do accept that until the child has reached a certain age and ability to learn how to deal with stressors himself the meltdowns could be part of life. They cannot be prevented. If something is important enough to not be allowed, then with respect to my opinion, the grown up has to deal with the meltdowns. It might sound cruel, but as the child is out of control and some things have to be done or not done there is little of a solution than just acceptance and a sane and healthy way in dealing with this disability.

      4) the most important in preventing meltdowns might be to make situations and rules predictable. If the meltdowns happen because of chocolate, make chocolate predictable. In the sense of giving him or her chocolate every day after lunch by explaining calmly that this is it for the day and that he or she can choose himself when to eat it over the day. Make an agreement about the amount. Let him do his own choice, never use it for punishment. Never make any unexpected chances in these routines. Allow space for calm and silent discussions and try to remain yourself calm and friendly when the child starts to build up tension. If the situation is worth a meltdown then accept it, if the situation is not worth it then you might give in. Not getting your own way is often nothing more than being unable to deal with the unexpected. By making situations predictable they will become expected and thus less likely to end in a meltdown. The rules should be discussed in a stressfree calm moment. One where the child is attentive and can also formulated his own wishes. By listening to these wishes and incorporating them into the agreement you will help him or her to accept them and you can remind him about the aggreement and let him know that this is what you aggreed on.

      5) It is possible to raise tolerance. But this is a daily task. In small games a careful and loving adult can carefully stretch the limits. The stress here is on careful and loving as it might be devastating if this is used against the child in a manipulative or cruel way. Games are perfect for such a task. Play games, let them win and gradually make them comfortable with the situation and constantly observe the build up of frustration if it happens, avoid the meltdown at this stage under any circumstances by relieving the situation which you see the child cannot bear. Just observe and provide a stressfree comfortable situation. Then at some point you can go closer to the stressor while at the same time remaining calm yourself. Explain friendly, just guide the child through the situation and let her know that you are proud if it managed a difficult situation and that by that she has now learned a bit better to deal with these strong impulses. Give her time afterwards to fully recover from it. The child might seem happy. Nevertheless it is hard emotional work for all participants. Give her afterwards the relieve and time to concentrate on what she wants to concentrate whether it is stimming or play or reading or whatever. She will need it in order to fully process the situation before.

      The meltdowns will be part of life for quite some time and it is stress for everybody. With respect to my opinion they are unavaoidable unless the child is grown up enough to consciously relfect on himself and his triggers and until it is old enough to control situations, by e.g. withdrawing, himself. Until this moment it is the task of the grown up to carefully consider the needs of any child, incorporating them and helping the child to deal with this build up of tension and finding a way himself to learn how to avoid meltdowns and how to find relieve in a situation of tension.

      Predictability, particularly if the rules are based on mutual agreement, enormously helps to establish the most important rules and in games the parents can learn how to help the child to deal with frustration in an environment where there are no important rules or things to be lost. Thus there is no necessity for the grown up to insist on something and provocate a meltdown. Friendliness, empathy, calm and non-judmental are with respect to my experience the keywords here.

      If the child cannot agree on a certain rule, explain that this rule is important and ask which changes one could make such that the child will be able or might want to accept it.

      It is never a black or white thing. If the grown up reduces the situation to a black or white, no or yes, the meltdowns will be more likely. Small changes in the “no or yes” could make all the difference.

  19. Pete Sarginson says:

    Hello Leigh,

    What a beautiful & accurate way you have described a meltdown. For all of my marriage my wife thought i was having a temper fit. Even though I tried to explain that it was frustration at what was happening to me & not being able to process information at the time or that my brain had become overloaded, she just told me that I was being unreasonable. Sadly we’ll be going our seperate ways even after my having had a formal diagnosis.

    To anyone else thats new to this please be patient & kind to yourself & accept it for what it is. It does pass over & is a reality of being an Aspie. The advice that Leigh has given is fantastic & very helpful.

    Best wishes to everyone that finds this site,

    Pete : )

  20. Rose says:

    Thank you for sharing your first-person account. My son is 11 years old and has meltdowns and tantrums on occasion. This helped me understand the difference and provided strategies for helping him when he’s in the midst of a meltdown.

  21. jj says:

    Thank you. I will definitely share this with others.

  22. Natalia Jiménez says:

    Thank you for sharing this. What you wrote about the way you feel and cope with this situations and the best way to help you will be very useful to understand and help others that are not able to tell us how they feel.

  23. Mothergeek says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. My son is almost 3 & was diagnosed last week. I will be sharing this piece with family and friends to help them understand the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

  24. Pat says:

    That is very useful , helpful information. Thank you.

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