Self-harm is a real threat for children, whether neurodominant or neurodivergent. However, children with autism are at risk to self-injurious behavior for several reasons. Fortunately, we can significantly reduce your child’s risk by becoming aware of the risk in the first place, and having a strategy for preventing an occurrence altogether.
This subject can be challenging to approach, and we always advise consulting an autism specialist or therapist if your child is already engaging in self-damaging behavior. We’ve put together a guide all about self-harm in children with autism, and how you can protect your child from doing so.
What is Self-Harm in Autism?
When we think of self-harm, it is often an image of depression, anxiety, and dramatic cries for help. These elements can and do exist alongside self-injurious behavior in children with autism, but there are many more subtle and equally devastating elements to self-harm in autism. Typically, it isn’t to a suicidal extreme, but there is a high risk of continued self-abuse into adulthood without treatment.
Children with developmental conditions (including ASD) often take part in self-injurious behaviors such as head banging, biting, or extreme repetition of actions that can cause physical and mental damage. Because these behaviors are often extensions of tics that develop uniquely to a child, noticing and treating them early on is integral for long-term prevention.
Why Do Children with Autism Engage in Self-Harm?
Children of all types engage in self-harm for complex reasons that deserve our attention. However, there are some reasons that children with autism engage in self-injurious behavior more often than neurodominant children. These reasons include:
- Expressing emotional pain or confusion through self-injury
- Lack of education about the physical risk of self-harm
- Physical ailments such as seizure-causing tics
- Sensory enjoyment, arousal, or curiosity surrounding self-harm
- Frustration that cannot be communicated easily to parents or caretakers
- Biochemical or genetic predisposition to self-harm
- Avoidance or escapism
- Sensory overload
Identifying Signs of Self-Harm in Children
Self-harm is often a shocking discovery for parents, and there is the risk of ignoring signs due to hope or disbelief that their child could be hurting themselves. However, it is necessary to be objective and watchful to make sure children – especially neurodivergent children are not giving off signs of self-harm that are ignored.
- Rocking or thrashing during distress
- Bite marks on the hands and arms
- Scratch marks, especially on the face and arms
- Bruising on the head or hands
- Red eyes or signs of damage around the eyes
- Swelling or fractures in hands and other extremities
Usually, children with autism are not trying to manipulate their parents or rebel by self-harm. This is a welcome relief in some ways, but it also makes it difficult to see signs that are not physically apparent. This means communicating with your child and practicing their self-expression play a critical role in preventing further self-injurious behavior in the future.
How to Treat Self-Injurious Behavior in Autism
If you have observed your child committing acts of self-harm or are suspicious that they might be engaging in it, they will need treatment and professional help.
These treatments include:
- Functional behavioral assessments to identify the cause or motive of self-harm
- Tracking behaviors to see if there are triggers or ways your child can communicate their reasoning
- Teaching your child how to communicate through emotions that may cause self-harm
- Treating physical ailments or working on sensory issues that cause self-harm
- Exploring psychological causes and potential treatment using prescribed medication
Because self-harm in children with autism has such a wide range of causes and reasoning, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Each child is unique, and their case must be evaluated for several factors. But know that working with professionals is the best way to develop a plan most effective for protecting your child from self-inflicted harm in the future.
Ally Pediatric Therapy is Here to Help
At Ally Pediatric Therapy, we know how distressing self-harm can be for children and parents alike. Our team of licensed ABA therapists will work with you and your child to treat and prevent these instances from occurring again. We have decades of experience treating complex behavioral challenges, and our primary goal is to keep families safe and happy If you are seeking help for your child, please don’t hesitate to reach out. One conversation could make a difference for life.