ADHD Meltdown vs Autism Meltdown: Differences and Similarities

In this blog, we will compare Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autistic meltdowns. We will start by introducing each of the two conditions and the significance of each type of meltdown and their manifestations. Keep reading to find out more!
Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Neuroscientist at the University Of Cambridge.

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ADHD Meltdown vs Autistic Meltdown

ADHD and autistic meltdowns are distinct in their manifestations. Since both of the diseases are different, the meltdown that is sometimes experienced by individuals suffering from both of these diseases is not the same. ADHD is characterized by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, while autistic meltdowns are intense responses to overwhelming situations, often characterized by loss of control.

What Is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, known also under its acronym ADHD [1, 2], is a neurodevelopmental disorder, usually commencing in early childhood and continuing into adulthood [1] ADHD is not limited to children and can also be diagnosed in adulthood [1, 3]. In fact, 2.5% of adults also have ADHD [1, 3].

Although the exact cause of ADHD is not understood, it has been linked to elevated levels of manganese. Manganese can influence the dopamine system and is also often the target for ADHD treatments [4].

ADHD symptoms include problems with focusing, episodes of hyperactivity, and/or impulsive behaviors [1]. Less common symptoms of ADHD include ADHD fatigue, ADHD Paralysis, problems with eye contact. Surprisingly, there is even a link between ADHD and hypermobility.

In adults, the ADHD symptoms may overlap with other conditions of psychopathology which complicates the diagnosis [5]. Overall, these symptoms may hugely impact the life of the sufferer and also the lives of others around. This may result in various challenges ranging from difficulties in school, work, and also other activities [1].

However, ADHD is a fairly common condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around 8.8% of US Children have ADHD diagnoses [1]. And around 6.1 million children around the US have been diagnosed with ADHD [5].

What is ADHD Meltdown?

An ADHD meltdown refers to an intense response to overwhelming situations. Such a response may be triggered by sensory overload, frustration, or stress.

Individuals experiencing such meltdown may lose control over the situation which leads to extreme emotional or physical outbursts [4].

During the ADHD meltdown, the affected individual with ADHD may start screaming, throwing things, become aggressive, or have other intense reactions. ADHD meltdowns are distressing both the individual suffering but also the people around them.

It is important to keep in mind that ADHD meltdowns are not a choice but rather a symptom of the disorder.

What Is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, commonly referred to as autism is a neurodevelopmental condition [6]. It starts in the early ages of an individual, typically around the age of 3, and is stable with no remission throughout one’s life [6, 7]. It usually affects people regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic background [7].

Interestingly, the boy-to-girl ratio of people affected by autism is 4.3-1 [7].

Symptoms of autism include restricted and repetitive interests or patterns of behaviour. In addition, we can observe problems with communication and difficulties with social interactions.

Autism includes a variety of conditions and can be manifested as Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder, typical autism, Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder [6, 7].

Up to 90% of all the cases are genetic, although environmental factors also play a role [6].

What Is Autistic Meltdown?

An autistic meltdown is, similarly to the ADHD meltdown, a splash of intense response to overwhelming situations. The situations which are considered overwhelming vary from individual to individual.

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In autistic people, it can be triggered by an overload of information, sensory overload, or social and emotional stress.

During such meltdowns, individuals experience bursts of extreme emotions like anger, sadness, and fear [8]. Individuals experiencing them often feel like they are not under control and in fact not feel like themselves sometimes [8].

Often times we see problems with thinking and memory in such attacks [8].

As each form of autism is unique, it is important to understand that they might not look the same and require a lot of empathy, compassion, and a deep understanding of the individuals’s specific triggers and experiences [8, 9].

What Is The Difference Between Autistic And ADHD Meltdown?

Although both ADHD and Autism are neurodevelopmental behavioral conditions with sometimes overlapping symptoms, when it comes to meltdowns there are some key differences.

For instance, in autism, the meltdown is a reaction to overwhelming stimuli or situations resulting in physical responses such as intense crying, aggressive behavior, or screaming. Typically, the cause of such a meltdown is a change of routine, frustration, or sensory overload.

On the contrary, individuals with ADHD may experience meltdowns as a result of having problems managing their own impulses. They are often triggered by frustration, fatigue, or sensory overload, and contrary to autistic meltdowns, ADHD meltdowns lead to restlessness, impulsivity and greater problems with maintaining focus.

Importantly, please note that both of these meltdowns are part of the condition and can not be avoided. However proper management of these meltdowns and understanding the environment is crucial for the sufferer to feel better.

To better understand it, make sure to consult with a medical professional who can provide appropriate support and possible interventions.

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Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Frederika is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, where she investigates new biomarkers for Frontotemporal Dementia and other tauopathies. Her research has been published at prestigious conferences such as the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023. She obtained her BSc in Biomedical Sciences from UCL, where she worked closely with the UK Dementia Research Institute.