Aut's Thoughts

Giving you inside perspectives on the autistic mind.

Tantrums Don't Exist

autism insights Apr 11, 2024

I regularly see posts on my feeds that ‘Tantrums are different to meltdowns’ in an attempt to differentiate between bad behaviour and something outside of the child’s control.


But they miss the point - we as adults label behaviour as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ depending on how that behaviour impacts us and others. And that isn’t a helpful mindset.


If instead we looked at them as ‘distress behaviours’ where Panic Monkey and Dino Brain have taken over because the child feels under threat - we open up our curiosity instead of locking down on judgement.


Passed down ‘parental wisdom’ paints a tantrum as a false display of emotion in order to manipulate the parent into ‘giving in’. It’s based on what parents observe, what they were told about themselves as children, and a flawed understanding of developments in reasoning.


And that false reasoning that tantrums are manipulative is often reinforced because we don’t recognise our own primal responses at play. As a species, we are tuned to respond to a child in distress and meet their needs. It’s a reflexive impulse. It ensures survival of the next generation. 


That autonomic response can lead us to believe that we are being ‘tricked’ into giving in - because the response didn’t come from our conscious brain - it wasn’t an intentional choice. We feel manipulated, so, we reason, we WERE manipulated.


And that belief is reinforced because we attribute our own actions AS AN ADULT to the child. Adults often think of the overwhelmed young person having the same reasoning skills that they, as a mature, calm, regulated adult has.


And they don’t. When ‘tantrums’ first appear, toddlers are only just starting to become aware that other people are a separate entity to them. They have zero knowledge about why THEY do what they do, let alone understand the cause and effect of someone else’s responses.


This understanding doesn’t fully come into its own until your early twenties. Up to that point there is a developing understanding of cause and effect - but not to the level where deliberate and well-thought out manipulation can occur.


Usually it’s Panic Monkey and Dino Brain that learn first - at the subconscious level. 


With a young person who regularly ‘uses tantrums to get their way’, this is Dino Brain learning that the Flood Response - Hero Hunting - is an effective protective method. And Panic Monkey getting quicker and quicker at calling Dino Brain in for protection because it has learnt that this is the ONLY way to stay safe and get your needs met.


So, what IS happening when a child has a ‘tantrum’.


First, the Limbic System identifies a need - this is either Glitter Chimp, our resource hunter, or Panic Monkey, our Health and Safety Officer. 


At this point the toddler feels a driving want - at the level of ‘If I don’t get this thing I might die’ (literally die - the Limbic system has identified it as essential to survival).


It might be a cookie to boost energy levels as the ability to process starts to drop.


A new toy that helps to replenish dopamine and serotonin levels and restores a sense of safety when feeling anxious and unsafe. Or the purchase offers a proof of love and attention from the caregiver. My protector is resource hunting for me.


Attention from a caregiver because Panic Monkey has decided that the sabretooth tiger is hanging around and if the protector isn’t paying attention, the young person is going to end up a sabretooth snack.


Or anything else that the Limbic System has decided will offer a way to stay safe and protected.


Anxiety is already up when the request is made.


Then the parent says ‘No’. It doesn’t matter what the reason is or how valid the reason is - what Panic Monkey hears is -


‘You’re not going to get what you need to stay safe - good luck with the Sabretooth tiger.’


A direct threat to survival.


Now we as adults know that it ISN’T a threat to survival, we have knowledge and experience to tell us this - small children don’t have this yet. So the intense response to a ‘simple’ no seems massively out of proportion. But if we put ourselves in the young person’s place, and imagine what it’s like to be entirely reliant on our protectors to provide food, shelter and defence, then we can start to see how terrifying that ‘No’ feels to the young person.


And ‘later’ is also a no - for Panic Monkey the need is NOW - later isn’t going to save us from the hovering Sabretooth ready to pounce. By then the sabretooth tiger will be sleeping off its lunch.


Panic Monkey calls in Dino Brain who decides to try to trigger the protective response in the caregiver by going into Flood - an extreme emotional display.


If the caregiver then says ‘Yes’ - the crisis is over - Dino Brain stands down - and normal service is resumed.


If the caregiver ‘distracts’ by offering another acceptable safe route - the crisis is over.


If the parent sticks to ‘No’ then the crisis escalates - Dino Brain now has to choose whether to keep going with ‘Flood’ - maybe increase its intensity - or switch to another defence mechanism. 


Is it better now to go to Fight or Flight to protect yourself? 


Or is it better to preserve energy resources and go into Flop or Freeze and become passive and quiet? This is often the choice if the caregiver is ignoring the distress - clearly help isn’t coming - this person isn’t a protector. 

Or maybe fawn is the better option? Excessive people pleasing to try and win the protector back, so they will be more invested in protecting in the future.


If Dino Brain picks Fight or Flight - or stays with Flood - this is when observers will class the behaviour as a meltdown. Having the desired item offered at this point won’t result in a stand down from Dino Brain because they are now fighting off a bigger threat. They are on their own and the Sabretooth is coming. Until they feel safe and loved and protected - Dino Brain is in charge.


If they pick Fawn, Flop or Freeze then observers assume that the young person has accepted the ‘No’ - and is OK with it. In reality they have just learned that help isn’t available when they need it, and there is no point in asking - it’s just going to waste energy.


Fawn is the most confusing for observers - because the young person is actively seeking to make the adult happy and perform in a way they believe will do that. They will seek to be best friends with the person they see as a threat. They will learn not to show any distress or upset because that would lose them the protection all over again. 


Tantrums are meltdowns - a high distress response to what the Limbic System sees as a threat to survival. They just have a very specific cause.


Meltdowns occur because the Limbic System sees a threat to survival - this can occur for many different reasons.






Damage and Trauma from past experiences.


What we call ‘tantrums’ occur for one very specific reason - the loss of a safe route.


It’s not always possible to say ‘Yes’ - there are often good reasons for the ‘No’ - but by working with your young person to find alternative ways to meet the need, to create a collection of safe routes - you can start to build the tools to divert to a new safe route instead.


And while the Dino Brain is in charge - create a safe and reassuring space - this too shall pass - let them know they are loved and big feelings are OK. Problem solving for the future can happen later when it’s calm.


If Panic Monkey feels the crisis is over Dino Brain can go back to sleep.


If you want to learn more about Dino Brain and Panic Monkey - check out our free one hour course