How to Deal with Self-Injurious Behavior in Children with Autism?

One of the more distressing behaviors that autistic children may exhibit is self-injurious behavior, resulting in physical harm to oneself. These behaviors can manifest in various forms, such as head-banging, biting, hitting, or scratching. It’s crucial to recognize that self-injury is not necessarily an expression of intent to harm but rather often emerges as a way for the child to cope with overwhelming emotions or sensory challenges.

Most people say we need to stop it, but we first need to understand the underlying cause – why are they doing it?  Remember that every person, every child, is different, and so the reasons for self-injurious behavior can vary, whether they have autism or not. What reasons do you think people self-harm?

The first thing you might think of is miscommunication. What about you when things don’t go how you thought they would, and you don’t know what to do? Do you think you are the only one who is overwhelmed and distressed in a relationship with a child with autism who doesn’t communicate? What do you think your autistic child is thinking and feeling? It would be best if you considered that they may be experiencing the same difficulties and frustrations, and their self-harm may be the only way for them to express their distress and discomfort.

The next thing you can think about is sensory issues.  Children overwhelmed by one particular sensation seek other sensations to escape it. The chaos of daily life and unexpected sensory input can make it difficult for them to regulate.

Another reason is learned behavior. If children who do not know effective coping mechanisms for their situation have experienced self-injurious behavior as a solution to an earlier problem due to the two causes discussed above, they will naturally recognize and choose this behavior as a pattern.  Unfortunately, by the time most of us become concerned about self-harm, it is often after this pattern has been established.

Effective communication support is essential to prevent this self-injurious behavior.  It can help children express their needs, feelings, and frustrations more effectively. They also need individualized support for sensory modulation. Implementing sensory modulation strategies, such as providing a quiet space, sensory breaks, or sensory tools, can help children manage overwhelming stimuli and reduce the likelihood of self-harm. Maintaining a consistent routine reduces changes and minimizes risk factors that may disrupt the child.  It is also essential to use elements that your child enjoys to help them anticipate what will happen to them.

Self-injurious behavior is a challenge, but it can be addressed by taking an individualized approach and finding and understanding the root causes.  Please observe your child; that is the priority.

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