Five Simple Tips on Reducing Holiday Meltdowns for Autistics

  • When choosing holiday decorations stay away from stimulating colors such as reds, oranges, and yellows. When everything else in the world is stimulating and overwhelming you will want to be able to go home to a sensory-friendly safe zone. Blues, deep purples, creams, greys, dusty pinks, and other soothing colors are good choices to help reduce stimulation for Autistics during the holiday season.
  • In the movie A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven chose red and green for Freddy Krueger’s sweater because he had read in Scientific American that red and green are difficult for humans to perceive at the same time. This is due to green being a calming color and red being a stimulating color. Wes Craven used this to his advantage by dressing Mr. Krueger in his signature red and green sweater in order to induce discomfort in audiences so it enhanced the perception of anxiety and fear when Freddy Kreuger was on screen. You may be asking what the heck does that have to do with the holiday season, right? Well, the two colors that are associated with winter holidays the most are red and green. When we are exposed to these colors, whether or not it is in a horror movie, we still have a difficult time processing green, a calming color, and red, a stimulating color, at the same time and it increases our anxiety and discomfort during the holiday season. To help diminish the anxiety associated with the holidays ban red and green combinations from your holiday decorations at home. This also goes for other stimulating/calming color combinations such as red and blue, yellow and blue, orange and green, yellow and green, and other similar conflicting color combinations. Mix relaxing colors with each other such as grey and dusty blue or choose monochromatic decorations in a calming color.
  • Skip the metallics! We all love tinsel and glitter. We love the mirrors under candles and the sparkling table runners. Unfortunately, our nervous systems think otherwise. Shiny metallic decorations can increase stimulation, as do mirror ornaments, and other reflective decorations. The sensory experience they provide and the light they reflect can be disorienting and lead to overstimulation and rumbling. We may not even realize that may be the culprit of our stressed-out mood. Try skipping the shiny stuff in your holiday home decorating and you may see your anxiety go down.
  • Be super picky about the lights you choose to use on your tree or windows! Forget about the super bright LED’s. No Autistic needs bright blue/white light keeping them up all winter long. That defeats the purpose of winter! Instead, stay with lights that complement your calmer decoration colors. Once again you will want to stay away from contrasting colors so if you have a green tree shy away from red lights. However, oddly, red lights in and of themselves are not stimulating. It’s actually quite the opposite. Red lights won’t stimulate the brain at night and disrupt sleep patterns. Red lights are a good choice for around windows where light may shine into a bedroom window possibly keeping people awake. Good colors for trees are golden, clear, blue, and green lights all the same color or even intermixed with purple, orb style lights that give the tree more of a glow are also a good choice. Multicolor lights can add to increased stimulation when mixed with the colors of other ornaments and it may be wise to avoid them. Also, consider forgoing chasing or dancing lights.
  • Don’t stress about decorating your entire house. The point of decorating is for you to celebrate as you see appropriate. If all you want is a tree with clear lights then by all means just have a tree with clear lights! If all you desire to put up for the holidays is a wreath on your front door and nothing more then go for it! The point is to lessen your meltdown potential during the holiday season by making it a sensory-friendly haven for you. It’s all up to you and what your unique Autistic nervous system can handle.

Extreme Stims During An Autistic Meltdown!

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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?

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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.

Helpful Hints:

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!