INTRODUCTION TO SELF-INJURIOUS
On a "good" day Bobby (not his real
name) hits his head with his fist 500 times an hour. On a bad day
the count may go up to 1,800 hits per hour. The short-term results
of this self-abuse are absolutely sickening. The long-term results
are much worse. Bobby has autism and engages in self-injurious behavior.
That explains things for the professionals but how about for Mom
and Dad? For a while they were even suspected of inflicting the
injuries on Bobby themselves. But now that everyone knows what is
going on, how do you make this self-injury behavior stop?
types of self-injury an autistic child may engage in
Children and adults with autism may engage in
self-injurious behaviors, also known as self-harm. Self-injurious
behaviors are actions that the child performs that result in physical
injury to the child’s own body. Typical forms of self-injury behavior
• hitting oneself with hands or other body parts
• biting oneself
• picking at skin or sores
• scratching or rubbing oneself repeatedly.
The cause of self-harming behaviors remains as
much a mystery as the cause of autism. It is thought that the behaviors
may be caused by a chemical imbalance, sinus problems, headaches,
ear infection, frustration, seeking sensory stimulation/input, sound
sensitivity, or to escape or avoid a task. There many different
ways to treat self-injurious behaviors. The method chosen may depend
upon the perceived cause of the self-injury and/or the bias of the
why less noticeable self-harm may be serious
Self-injurious behavior that results in bleeding
and serious tissue damage is easy to notice and usually leads to
frantic efforts to stop it. However, some repetitive
behaviors that seem harmless (e.g., rubbing the skin, lightly
tapping the forehead) can have serious, even life-threatening consequences
over time. To see why, I will have to take you back to my high school
physics class. I was taught that a 1,000 pound ball suspended on
a chain would start to move back and forth from the steady, rhythmic
motion of a ping-pong ball hitting up against it for thousands of
repetitions. It is not the overwhelming force or the weight of the
ping-pong ball that causes the movement but the repetitive nature
of the motion. The danger of repetitive rubbing or tapping can also
cause tissue damage over time and, if the head is involved, may
even cause brain damage over many years. The point is, all forms
of self-injurious behavior should be treated as soon as it is noticed.
assessment of self-injurious behavior
Each child or adult engaging in self-injurious
behavior will require an individual assessment to try to determine
the cause and motivation for the self-injurious behavior. If your
child is hurting himself or herself in any way, make this an issue
with the child's physician, psychologist, and/or any other professional
who treats your child. If a medical problem is discovered, the medical
problem can be treated. If the child is seeking sensory stimulation/input,
you may be able to find a replacement behavior that will meet this
need in a more socially acceptable and safe way (e.g., the child
who seeks pressure from pounding his hands on the floor may prefer
a vigorous hand massage).
different strategies for different causes of self-harming
If the self-injurious behavior is driven by attention,
ignoring of the self-injurious behavior may extinguish the behavior.
This would have to be accompanied by giving the child attention
for appropriate behavior when it occurs, known as positive
reinforcement. Of course, if the child is seriously hurting
himself or herself, this may not be an option. Reinforcing other
behavior that makes the self-injurious behavior impossible to perform
may also be recommended (e.g., reinforcing the child for manipulating
toys, which keeps the hands occupied and prevents face-slapping).
If the self-injurious behavior is caused by frustration,
it may be that teaching the child a way to cope or communicate will
prevent the self-injury. Simply giving the child constructive things
to do may prevent boredom, which could lead to self-injury.
Some children are treated with medication.
If the problem is a chemical imbalance, then treating the child
with appropriate medications may be a perfect answer. There is a
theory that children who injure themselves do so to release opiate-like
chemicals in the brain. Naltrexone is a medication that inhibits
the release of these opiate-like chemicals in the brain and the
belief is that this will remove the reason for the self-injury.
As a last resort, some parents and professionals have resurrected
aversive procedures to treat the most serious self-injurious behavior.
Aversives are behavior modification techniques that provide a negative
stimulus to the child whenever the self-injurious behavior occurs
(e.g., the child is spanked, yelled at, sprayed with water, or receives
a mild electrical shock). It seems strange that a punishment would
actually stop a child from harming themselves but many studies have
proven the effectiveness of aversives in stopping serious self-injury.
debate over aversive strategies for self-injurious behavior
It would make sense that the seriousness of the
self-injury should direct the choice of treatment. A child's whose
life is in danger should receive the most aggressive treatment.
The choice of treatment needs to be up to the parent, of course.
In some countries or states, there may be laws that limit the type
of treatment a child may receive, however. These laws may require
treating self-injurious behavior with positive behavioral programs
and outlaw the use of aversives, even when the self-injury is life-threatening.
Read how one parent described this approach:
"Currently, there are 100's of autistic people
being tortured by ineffective, tedious and ridiculous "positive
behavioral programs" - Worse, even when these autistic people
have repeatedly failed to respond to these conventional methods,
several state laws have prohibited the use of mild aversive therapy,
which - ironically is one of the most safe, effective and humane
therapies used to protect a compulsive self-injurious autistic person-who
has otherwise NOT responded to a plethora of conventional interventions.
It's a crime to allow a person to continue injuring themselves...and
the worst is the on-going practice of behavioral psychologists taking
data - yes data - counting the number of times the autistic person
smashes their skull with their fists, or rips their hair out...
it's called a "functional analysis" - and this practice
should be illegal.
I never want any family or child to suffer the
unbelievable hell we experienced dealing with uncontrollable self-injurious
behavior. Families should know what the alternatives are to help
their child. Skin-stimulus therapy is very effective in that small
population of self-injurious children, who have otherwise NOT responded
to other therapies. Many people do not realize that it's extremely
complex to treat a profoundly-autistic or profoundly-disabled person's
self-injurious behaviors - as they have limited cognitive abilities;
hence don't respond favorably to ignoring, re-direction or pharmaceutical
interventions. The skin-shock works best for compulsive self-abuse,
as it acts like a nudge on a record player that keeps playing. It's
like it "startles' the otherwise very distant autistic child
into reality. It actually teaches them self-control. Some of these
types of autistic children are on a very primitive level - and it's
hard for others to accept that they simply don't respond to conventional
therapies." (An anonymous parent).
Try the non-aversive procedures first, but for
those children whose seriously self-injurious behavior has not responded
to these procedures, it may pay to look at aversive strategies as
by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
Go to Self-injurious
behavior & autism for a detailed approach to handling self-injurious
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories
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Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this
article. This fact sheet remains under his copyright and is used
with his permission. You are encouraged to visit his site as it
is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive information.