How to Stop Self-Injury in an Autistic Child


Many wonder how to stop self-injury in an autistic child as it is painful and dangerous. Self-injurious behaviour is where a person physically harms themselves. It’s sometimes called self-harm. This might be headbanging on floors, walls or other surfaces, hand or arm biting, hair pulling, eye-gouging, face or head-slapping, skin picking, scratching or pinching, forceful head shaking.

However, with autistic children, self-injury occurs more often than not. There are several theories as to why this practice can be prevalent in autistic children, and there are some methods you can use to help ease this distressing practice.  There are many possible reasons why a person may engage in self-injurious behaviour, ranging from biochemical to the social environment.

Because autistic children are unable to communicate through language the way that others can, they often feel frustrated at not being understood or at not getting what they need or want. Thus, autistic children may commit self-injury, by banging their heads or biting themselves (among other tactics), to release some of that frustration that cannot be communicated through words.

Also, self-injury is a way of getting attention. An autistic child’s frustration goes hand-in-hand with wanting attention. For instance, by scratching oneself until one bleeds, the autistic child will immediately get someone’s attention, and this person will work to understand what the child wants or needs.

This theory of frustration and attention has been the sole thinking for quite some time. If a goal is being blocked, people often become frustrated. The frustration-aggression theory states that frustration often leads to aggressive behaviour. This theory was proposed by Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mower, and Sears in 1939

Recently, however, studies have shown that self-injury can have a biochemical component that relieves some of the pain and frustration one feels by releasing endorphins, or “happy hormones,” into one’s system. The most popular ones are endorphins, dopamine and serotonin

The endorphins provide a release for the autistic child, allowing him or her to temporarily forget about his or her frustration and pain. Furthermore, it is believed that if one practices self-injury enough, the endorphins will begin to help mask any pain associated with such behaviour, making it an addictive action.

While some professionals say that ignoring the autistic child’s self-injurious behaviour is an acceptable method of treating such practice, this can obviously be very difficult. Others have suggested that communication therapy and drugs may help an autistic child by providing him or her with another method of communication.

Therapeutic communication is defined as the face-to-face process of interacting that focuses on advancing the physical and emotional well-being of a patient.

There are drugs that will help stem the addictive behaviour of releasing endorphins into the system, and thus help stop such behaviour. There are also nutritional solutions available; vitamin B6 and calcium have been said to help many families with an autistic child.

For the family members involved, communication training to learn how to communicate with an autistic child is also extremely important. Because normal adults, and even children and teenagers, are so accustomed to communicating through easily recognizable words or body language, they have to learn that communicating with an autistic child requires a completely different process.

These skills include using eye contact, gestures, body movements, imitation, and babbling and other vocalizations to help them communicate.  Some children with ASD may never develop oral speech and language skills. For these children, the goal may be learning to communicate using gestures, such as sign language.

By looking for solutions for both the family and the autistic child involved in self-injurious behaviour, one may be able to overcome this distressing practice.

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