Most would agree that the Autistic Meltdown is the most notorious symptom related to Autism. An Autistic Meltdown is when the Autistic Nervous System reacts to being overwhelmed by environmental stimulation. These can range from external reasons (such as bright light) to internal ones (such as panic when plans change abruptly). Often this reaction manifests in an apparent display of intense feelings. Passion, Rage, or Overly Silly and Giggly. Meltdowns manifest in many ways. Which makes sense because humans overall are creatures with feelings and our emotions lead to their display. As with NeuroTypicals, the NeuroDivergent comes in a plethora of variations.
When Melting Down the Autistic Nervous System is being overstimulated and is interpreting that overstimulation as pain. It will do whatever it can in order to stop that pain. This is where Extreme Stimming comes into play.
During an intense Autistic Meltdown, Autistics both young, old, male, and female may engage in Extreme Stims commonly referred to as Self Injurious Behavior (SIB). I prefer the term Extreme Stim because the stimming isn’t intended to cause injury or harm. It’s meant to flip the figurative kill switch and bring you out of fight or flight mode. When Melting Down the Autistic Nervous System is being overstimulated and is interpreting that overstimulation as pain. It will do whatever it can in order to stop that pain. This is where Extreme Stimming comes into play.
I’ll explain but first I’m going to explain it to you in a smaller, more understandable, and way more relatable, way. I’ll use baseball as a life reference.
Baseball in and of itself is a painful experience and I’m pretty sure most people were unreasonably forced to play baseball (or some form of sports that included a ball in school). When you or someone else was hit by the ball either you’d instinctively rub the area or your gym teacher or another kid would tell you to rub the injury and rubbing where the ball hit would surprisingly help the pain even though it makes no sense at all, or does it?
In a nutshell when you get hit by a ball the signal that you were hit by the ball travels up the nervous system to your brain. The brain sends signals back and produces pain. When you gently stimulate the injury by rubbing, shaking, or “walking it off” it sends a signal up the same nerves and interrupts the nervous system process and signals from the pain and this helps make it feel better.
The same thing goes for the nervous system pain during an Autistic Meltdown. As I said before during a Meltdown the Autistic Nervous System interprets overstimulation as pain and reacted as though it’s on fire. It panics and senses impending doom. (I’m not being overly dramatic this is how an Autistic Meltdown feels psychologically and you can’t control it at will, you just go along with it because you have no choice!) In response, the nervous system does the only universally wide instinctive thing that we all share. It seeks out and applies stimulation that will stop that pain. Since the nervous system is on fire and in panic it seeks out stimuli that are more extreme than the environmental assault the Autistic Person is going through. Head hitting, screaming, rocking, head banging, pulling hair, stabbing oneself, etc. are all ways that this can be done. These extreme stims help calm the nervous system by stopping the pain with alternative simulation very much like rubbing an injury.
Extreme Stims also provide enough stimulation that activates the Endorphin System which is the body’s natural pain killer. There are many studies on Endorphins and Autism including evidence that Autistic’s naturally have Endorphin Deficiencies. Which would explain why our nervous systems panic in the first place! That’s for another article though.
If you, or someone you know, experience Extreme Stims that are dangerous, potentially dangerous, or life-threatening you can learn replacement activities that will produce the same neurological reaction when applied when you are still in the rumbling stage and still maintain control over yourself. Replacement Stims may or may not prevent or lessen a Meltdown overall. If you have the opportunity please consult an Occupational Therapist or other Expert in Sensory Input.
You will want to focus on things that get your endorphins flowing. I have had luck with running and sprinting. (If you do take your stimming outdoors make sure you take a sedative that will calm you but not put you to sleep just in case you do sense a loss of control approaching while out but it’s even better if you have someone with you. I suggest both. These are precautions in case you encounter negative attention.) Throwing soft objects. Rocking. Pounding my legs with my fists (up to hard enough to bruise but not so hard as to cause swelling). Vigorously shaking my hands. Pacing. Sex. Jumping and coming down with force. Slapping a firm surface with an open palm. Applying pressure to my temporal nerve until uncomfortable. Hot shower. Basically, anything that may overwhelm the environmental overstimulation and produce Endorphins with little to no injury is the best. If you can match it up with the type of sensory input you crave, even better! Do this from the beginning of rumbling and throughout the Meltdown. I wish you luck!