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Panic Attack vs Autism Meltdown: What’s the Difference?

by Talha Seo
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It can be frightening and emotional to witness a child having a meltdown. But what if it’s during a panic attack? Is it the same thing?

As a parent, it’s important to understand the differences between a panic attack vs autism meltdown. They may look the same to an observer, but the ways in which they affect the individual and how they’re managed are vastly different.

Let’s take a closer look at the nuances between panic attacks and autism meltdowns so you know just what to do in these difficult scenarios.

Understanding Panic Attacks

A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of overwhelming fear or anxiety that can strike without warning. These attacks typically reach their peak within a few minutes and can include a variety of physical and psychological symptoms.

Common Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear or anxiety that can occur without a known trigger. It has symptoms such as:

  • racing thoughts
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • palpitations
  • fear of death/dying

Panic attacks can be effectively managed through a combination of relaxation techniques. Medication prescribed by a healthcare professional can also help.

Understanding Autism Meltdowns

Autism meltdowns are sometimes simply referred to as “meltdowns.” They are intense emotional and behavioral reactions that can occur in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These episodes are often triggered by the following:

  • overwhelming sensory stimuli
  • changes in routine stress
  • frustration

Common Symptoms of Autism Meltdowns

An autism meltdown can manifest in various ways. Some common signs of an autism meltdown include:

  • irritability
  • aggression
  • difficulty regulating emotions
  • physical aggression

An autism meltdown can also include a regression in already acquired skills. There may also be difficulty communicating and self-injurious behavior.

Key Differences Between the Two

Whilst they may appear to be similar in presentation, there are some key differences. Panic attacks are characterized by intense sensations of dread and fear or terror. On the contrary, an autism meltdown is a response to sensory overload or extreme emotional distress.

Another key difference is physiological. During a panic attack, the body becomes overwhelmed by stress hormones like adrenaline. This leads to increased heart rate, breathlessness, and profuse sweating.

On the other hand, an autism meltdown can be identified by the freezing and rocking. There can also be withdrawal of autistic individuals as they process emotional or sensory overload.

Overall, panic episodes are intense, short-term reactions to fear or perceived threat. On the other hand, an autistic meltdown is caused by problems with understanding emotions or sensory information.

Treatments Available

Panic attacks and autism meltdowns can present symptoms that may look similar on the surface. However, they are two entirely different conditions. Treatment for panic attacks often includes the following:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications
  • deep breathing
  • meditation

On the other hand, treatment for autism meltdowns typically includes:

  • sensory integration
  • environmental management
  • communication training
  • behavior modification techniques

Cognitive-behavioral therapy may help manage anxiety related to panic attacks. Behavior modification techniques may help mitigate meltdowns associated with autism spectrum disorder. An experienced psychiatrist or psychologist can work with an individual.

A Guide to the Difference Between Panic Attack vs Autism Meltdown

Panic attack vs Autism meltdown may both appear similar on the surface. However, there are distinct differences between the two. The key takeaway is to understand the individual and what triggers the reaction.

Always remember that it’s important to reach out for help to avoid any unnecessary distress. Let’s work together to provide a safe environment for all individuals living with anxiety and autism.

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