I attended an autism conference online this past weekend. In the conference they addressed screenings and diagnosis, video modeling, behavioral treatment, education, medications, and co-morbid conditions. My next couple posts will probably be dedicated to addressing some of the thoughts that came to me as I watched this conference.
In the discussion of co-morbid conditions and medication, self-injurious behavior came up. Although some of the reasons why people with autism self injure were addressed, the reasoning behind the reasons wasn’t really explained so I thought I’d explain my side of it a little bit.
First off, I should say that although I have participated in self-injurious behaviors, I have never done anything that would actually cause harm in any way. Also, the behavior I’m talking about is limited to behavior related to autism. I am not talking about self injury related to depression or other related psychological disorders.
My self-injurious behavior consisted of scratching my arms and head, putting pressure on my arms or hands, and twisting my hands. Generally these behaviors are specific to certain situations. The most common situation for me to use self-injurious behaviors is a social situation or a situation where I need to stay in a certain spot for a long period of time. Generally in these situations it is pretty easy to scratch my arms or twist my hands without it being too distracting for other people. If it is a more formal situation, I tend to grip my wrists and apply pressure instead.
In general, I only use self-injurious behavior when I feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable because I am in pain, or because I feel trapped, or because I’m not sure how to handle something. The point of using this behavior isn’t pain so much as it is distraction. If I apply some sort of physical stimulus, I can forget about whatever is making me uncomfortable. Also, when I am already in pain, it distracts me from that pain or helps me feel like I am relieving that pain in a way.
From my perspective, my behavior is not a problem, but rather a coping skill. It allows me to deal with more distressing problems. It allows me to distract myself from something that is uncomfortable and focus on something familiar and distinct. I’m able to transfer those uncomfortable feelings inside of me into comfortable feelings outside of me.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that I did certain self-injurious behavior because I was suffering from GERD. I realized that I was in pain, but I thought that that pain was caused by being uncomfortable in a social situation rather than from a medical problem. I was used to pain from my surroundings so I didn’t realize that it meant something could be wrong. For me, people touching me or sounds could induce feelings of pain so I considered these situations to be similar to those.
I have also used self-injurious behavior to try to reduce pain. For example, sometimes I would feel that my brain was too big for my skull and I would scratch my head to try to relieve some of the pressure I felt. Although it didn’t work like I imagined, it seemed to me to help somewhat.
Due to these experiences, I think that checking for a source of pain should be the first step in trying to deal with self-injurious behavior. After that, consider whether the behavior is really harmful or not. If it just looks strange or socially unacceptable, it might not be worth getting rid of. If anything, I would suggest adapting it to something less harmful/ noticeable rather than trying to get rid of it altogether. It could be one of the few coping mechanisms someone has.
Remember that we don’t have to be like everyone else. We don’t have to conform to society’s norms. People with autism are different, and the more we accept those differences, the easier it will be to accept ourselves.
If you would like to view a more comprehensive list of reasons for self-injurious behavior, visit http://www.autism.com/symptoms_self-injury