When you see a child headbanging or displaying self-injurious behavior (SIB), people usually conclude that the child is throwing a tantrum. It can be the case for most children but is a different scenario for kids with Autism. And for parents and caregivers, watching your child hurting themselves is painful and frustrating. Let’s dive deeper into why it happens, and ways of helping an Autistic child with self-injury behavior.
Why Autistic Children Harm Themselves?
Autistic children fall under a vast range of spectrum where no two children have the same behavior and skills. Here are several factors why people with Autism would inflict self-harm:
- Learned behavior
- Child’s way to communicate
- Grab attention from their parents or caregivers
- Self-soothing when in pain
- Being bullied
- Mental health problem such as depression
- Memories of abuse or bereavement
- Experiencing sensory overload
Likewise, Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D., suggests there could be a physiological component as well. Children with Autism’s headbanging can be due to genetic and biochemical factors.
“Beta-endorphins are endogenous opiate-like substances in the brain, and self-injury may increase the production and the release of endorphins. As a result, the individual experiences an anesthesia-like effect, and, ostensibly, he/she does not feel any pain while engaging in the behavior,” he writes.
Causes of Self-harm
A Response to Pain
Many kids with Autism have challenges expressing themselves. Some would succumb to self-inflicted pain to ease the discomfort of an illness. For parents and caregivers, these behaviors make them question why they would inflict pain when they are already uncomfortable.
Some children, especially nonverbal ones, find headbanging or hand biting as a way to tell others what they feel or need. Some kids slap their faces if they want you to stop saying or doing something. They can bite their hands if agitated. If they can see that people rush to them to check what’s happening, they’ll use the opportunity to get what they want. Thus, it can become an attention-seeking tactic.
Sensory Processing Issues (Overload or Deficit)
When children are placed in a setting where they lack control or in an undesirable situation, they can use this tactic to express themselves. Physiological problems resort to self-harm to self stimulate to make them feel comfortable.
Managing Self-injurious Behaviors
Due to the physical absence of teachers and doctors during the pandemic, parents need to find ways to communicate with experts on how they can handle the issue themselves until help is available.
- Make use of picture cards or sign language for children to express themselves.
- Create a more structured routine where you can organize a list of activities throughout the day to keep them preoccupied.
- Simplify your instructions and how you ask things from the child.
- Giving the child what they want only if they behaved accordingly.
- Create a unique bedroom or space for your child as a sensory room.
Please note that the “punishment-based” technique should only be used in extreme circumstances where the child is getting out of control.
Medical Interventions of SIB
Only in severe cases should we use medical and nutritional intervention — and only in the strict guidance of experts and medical practitioners. They have to monitor the effects of these medications continually and recommend withdrawal when things get better. What we want to avoid are cases when the intervention could cause further SIB on the patient.
- Nutritional and dietary interventions, such as employing a gluten-free diet.
- Providing dietary supplements such as B6.
- Using distractions like vibrating pillow, weighted blanket, a gentle touch, or a bouncing chair.
Before diving into any of the recommended interventions, the child should be checked on the following:
- Any physical or medical attention needed
- The occurrence of any mental health issues
- Changing the patient’s environment devoid of any triggers
Once everything has been checked, and the child still manifests extreme self-injurious behavior, consult with an expert. Find ways within the crisis where you can meet personally in a safe environment for a thorough assessment. After this, implement a behavioral plan with the assistance of the developmental pediatrician or clinical psychologists.
Parents always want the best for our children. Kids with Autism do not need to be judged or further restricted, the care and love parents provide can make the difference. Understand that they are trying their best to cope with things. The least parents can do is to support them in their journey and remind them how “AWEsome” they are.
For more information, check out the Autism Self-Harm resource on Autism Parenting Magazine.
About the Author
Ava Wadaby is a contributing writer for Autism Parenting Magazine. She researches and writes about autism as she works to understand the challenges of her son who was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD. She also regularly conducts activities with children in her neighborhood, focusing on their learning and development.