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Tantrum or Meltdown/Shutdown?

While studying the Davis Approach to Autism at the Davis Learning Foundation, we explored the difference between tantrums and meltdowns (also the shutdowns). And what, in fact, causes these sensory overloads.

Tantrum - an outburst of anger and frustration, as a way of manipulation and gain. This is a chosen, conscious and controlled behavior that leads into a specific result. For such tantrums an audience is needed.

Meltdown - an uncontrolled disastrous collapse or nervous breakdown, release. When we find ourselves in a stressful situation from which we see no way out, the brain is overwhelmed with emotional, sensory and informational data that cause a "short circuit" and lead to panic reactions. Meltdowns are caused by significant sensory overload.

So what is sensory overload? And how does it cause a nervous breakdown?

The easiest way to deal with something is to go through your own experience. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and life experience is probably worth a million words!

I began to look for examples of sensory overload in my own life. And to my surprise, I found...

Sensory overload is the feeling when you've reached your limit. This feeling when "That's it, I can't do this anymore!!!". This is a survival strategy. This is when the existence of the "I" is further threatened. This is an extreme accumulated tension. To which there must be a way out. And this exit is in meltdown. Such is an explosion, a surge of energy, devastation, maybe even with aggression. This is a reset and renewal to live on ...

By the way, the way out can be not only meltdown. There may also be a shutdown. This is when a person, as it were, “freezes”. That is, it plunges into itself and is not able to respond to external circumstances. We notice this less, since such a state is less spectacular and less problematic for others. And this is my case!

For me, excessive sensory overload comes with all kinds of violence and aggression. I can't watch/read/hear about it. I don't like watching news and action movies, beating scenes. I switch the radio if the news suddenly starts, followed by a criminal review of the day ... For example, I fell into a stupor for three hours when two dogs attacked and bit my dog. Moreover, the numbness occurred after the situation was resolved. Outwardly, I'm sure there were no changes: I had to function normally. But inside I was all constrained: no emotions, a heavy head, cold limbs, my body seemed to be numb ... But this is only a small dog fight ... Such is the survival strategy: hide, freeze, wait it out and live on.

We all people. And we all have our own sensory overload, normotypical people too. But people on the autism spectrum experience sensory overload more often and more intensely. Normotypical people can prevent or avoid such situations, and autistic people often find it much more difficult to understand the triggers of such situations and notice the first symptoms.

So how to distinguish the tantrums from the meltdowns/shutdowns? After all, both there and there have their own demands put forward ... I can only advise the one thing: look at the demands themselves. If, as a result, a benefit is acquired, then it is rather to be the tantrum. If the demand is more like avoidance and a desire to stop something, or leave, then the most likely this is the meltdown.

And if in the first case you need to wait out the tantrum and not succumb to the demands, and soon this behavior model will “fall off” by itself, as unnecessary. In the second case, on the contrary, it is necessary to satisfy the requirement, understand the cause of the meltdown, and pay attention to the trigger that leads to such a difficult situation.

© Copyright 2023

Elena Nikulina, licensed DDAI (Davis Dyslexia Association International) facilitator in the correction of dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hypo / Hyperactivity, and other problems in learning according to the author's method of Ronald Davis, facilitator RDAF (Ronald Davis Autism Foundation ) to help people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Director of Dyslexia Correction and Support Centre, London, UK.

For more information on how to correct dyslexia, ADD(D), and other learning problems, see Ronald Davis's The Gift of Dyslexia, The Gift of Learning, and Autism and the Seeds of Change: Achieving Full Participation in Life through Davis's Approach to autism." — Abigail Marshall (author), Ronald Dell Davis (author).

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