You can see it anywhere that you go. The screaming child, the person rocking back and forth, arms and legs could be flailing. You see it, but do you actually know what it is you are witnessing? Maybe it is just a kid, upset that their parent will not buy them a candy bar, but maybe there is a deeper, more neurological response happening. They can look the same on the outside, but are you witnessing a tantrum, or is it a meltdown?
While the behaviors exhibited by someone with autism spectrum disorder like Asperger's Syndrome having a tantrum and those having a meltdown might appear the same at first glance, the underlying causes are completely different. Tantrums happen when an individual does not get their way with something. This could be not getting that candy bar, or, it could be not getting the attention they seek. Someone who is having a tantrum is acting out to get a response from those around them, and they don't care if that response is negative or not. They are not feeling overwhelmed, they are are feeling feeling anxious, they are just expressing themselves in a way that they believe will get them whatever it is that they may be seeking.
Meltdowns, unlike tantrums, are triggered by anxiety, not anger. That individual is in an overwhelming emotional state that is cause by the things going on in the environment around them. This results in a heightened state of fight or flight where being removed from the situation (flight) is often the best, and most common, response. In the same situation, it may not be because the child wants a candy bar, but rather, the crowds, the lighting in the store, or even smelling someone's perfume may have caused this neurological response. They want to get away and be alone, not yell and get attention. Their brain is overstimulated and it needs to reset. Often, the best way to accomplish this is for the individual to go to a quiet space, alone, and just let their brain do the rest.
Now that you are clear on the differences between tantrums and meltdowns, you will be better equipped to handle the situation. The next time you, or someone you are with experiences an episode like this, you can ask yourself if this is because the person is angry at not getting their way? Are they just acting out to get attention? If yes, then it is a tantrum. However, if they appear anxious, overwhelmed, and like they want to be alone, it is a meltdown and they just need to do whatever it is to help their brain reset.