While self-injurious behaviors like a child hitting himself are common in those with autism spectrum disorder, the cause can vary. Anxiety, avoidance, attention-seeking and problems communicating are all reasons why some children with autism might demonstrate such behavior. No matter what the cause, though, harming themselves often comes about because kids with ASD lack the ability to express themselves or deal with their frustrations. But despite their social and communication impairments, autistic kids can improve their behavior, points out The American Council on Exercise. (See Ref 4)
Explore the reason why your child hits herself. Pay attention to what happens immediately before and after the behavior occurs. For example, your child may hit herself when she feels physical pain, wants your attention or needs more sensory stimulation.
Make sure your child is safe but keep from giving the behavior more of your attention than necessary. Avoid making a fuss. Don’t make eye contact or talk to your child when he is hitting himself. Teach him there are more appropriate ways to get your attention or communicate a need. Reinforce appropriate behavior by praising him each time he demonstrates it.
Offer your child alternative ways for communicating the message that she is in pain or needs something. Use visual supports so she can tell you what she needs or wants. Even if your autistic child has some speech and language skills, she still may have difficulty using or understanding language. Pictures, drawings, pointing to objects and written words can help her communicate better.
Redirect your child to safer activities that provide the same sensory stimulation that hitting does. For example, if your child hits himself in the face, swinging or jumping on a large, firm pillow, bouncy ball or trampoline may give him the sensory input he needs. Riding toys and toys that rock also provide vestibular movement and stimulate the proprioceptive sense.
Include physical exercise in your child’s daily routine. The National Autistic Society in the U.K. reports that regular aerobic exercise like running, swimming and riding a bicycle can decrease the frequency of self-injurious and aggressive behaviors in those with ASD. (See Reference 2) Research also suggests that aerobic exercise can distract a child from self-stimulating behaviors, according to ACE Fit. (See Reference 4) Examples of self-injurious stimming behaviors include a child slapping herself, banging her head, biting her hand or picking at her skin.
Reduce your child’s anxiety by establishing a structured and predictable daily routine. Stimming behaviors, including self-injurious behaviors, are a way for kids with autism to deal with anxiety and stress. Routine helps a child manage anxiety especially during times of stress or change by making him feel more in control, notes The National Autistic Society. (See Reference 3) In addition, the more stimulating and less boring you make your child’s environment, the less often he may hit himself. Your child needs structured activities but he also needs opportunities for sensory stimulation. Incorporating music into his daily activities, for example, can stimulate your child's auditory, visual, tactile and kinetic senses.
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