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Defining Meltdowns

Unlike temper tantrums, meltdowns are not maniuplative tactics. They may start out as tantrums, but not usually. Usually they are a result of having too much to handle and not enough cognitive space to do it in. Being denied something you want can be a trigger if your stress level is bad enough; but the trigger is equally likely to be something sensory, like an alarm going off, or something transition-related, like being told that class has ended and you have to go to lunch.

The immediate trigger can be anything. It can be a loud noise or an unexpected event or some small annoyance like accidentally stumbling on a crack in the sidewalk. That immediate trigger is nearly irrelevant, because it's the underlying, dangerously-high stress level that created the situation to begin with.

Thankfully, most parents of autistic children don't have to worry about whether they are dealing with a tantrum or a meltdown. Autistic children can have both; and yes, we can be manipulative children, though we're quite unsubtle about it. The lucky thing is that the response to either tantrum or meltdown is generally the same: Back off, don't interact, and let it wind down on its own. Later, when the child has had some rest (I know I collapse afterward; I'm generally sore and utterly exhausted), you can talk about it and figure out why it happened. If it was a tantrum, then you didn't give the child the attention they were demanding. And if it was a meltdown, you stopped adding to the cognitive load by trying to force them to process it either way.

As adults, the goal is not truly to suppress meltdowns. There's no good in doing that whether you're five or fifty; they're unstoppable once they start, short of a shot of Haldol (and sometimes not even then). Eliminating all stress is impossible, too (and undesirable, since some harmless level of stress is necessary for motivation). The best strategy to learn is to predict them before they happen, to learn to self-monitor and find ways to de-escalate the problem. For me, the best way is to be alone and lie down, preferably on the floor. I have no idea why lying down does it, though I wouldn't be surprised if it were the pressure of the floor against my whole body combined with not needing to process balance and movement as you do when you're sitting or standing (I'm mildly dypraxic). Methods for de-escalating a potential meltdown are varied, and they depend on you and exactly what autistic traits you have. But they're important to learn, and important to teach to your children if you're a parent of someone who has meltdowns.

The fact is, we're autistic and we're always going to be this way, and the world is never going to be the perfect environment we'd want. The best we can do is recognize the problem, define it, and work with the facts as they are, rather than telling ourselves we're immature, impulsive, and undisciplined and hoping we'll somehow "get over it". That's like trying to scold the intertropical convergence zone into not producing hurricanes.
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Comments

I've always been somewhat uncomfortable with the attempt to distinguish between tantrums and meltdowns. Seeing some of the definitions people come up with often makes me feel as though my childhood meltdowns were "really" just tantrums. Many of them were triggered by what looked to be me not getting my way. But while that childish urge was there, it was also a profound difficulty in dealing with events that went differently from how I planned them or how I thought they ought to go. Is that a meltdown or a tantrum? For me, I was so rigid in my thinking that tantrums could become meltdowns very, very easily. It wasn't rare at all. Once I got started it was difficult for me to control myself. Is that the main difference between a meltdown and a tantrum? The fact that a tantrum can be controlled at will? Because it frankly boggles my mind that any NT could possibly control that.
The fact that a tantrum can be controlled at will?

Mostly. The way I see it as that tantrums are a behavior in order to profess want and change, they are inherently manipulative. Yet they can also be a reactive behavior to a response cue that wasn't expected. (IE throwing a fit when a particular television program that is normally airing on a particular time never shows up, it might appear to be a whiny tantrum but then devolves into loss of verbal processing and temporary regression)

Tl;DR: Tantrums can sometimes become meltdowns, normally tantrums can be controlled since they are emotion tool.s