Many children with autism may engage in self-harming behaviours and head banging seems to be one of the most common acts.
They might slam their head on the walls, floors, beds or other pieces of furniture. This is painful and they are clearly hurting themselves.
But why do they do that? Here are a few reasons why head banging happens:
Sensory Processing Issues
Head banging is a sign of sensory processing issues either from a sensory deficit or sensory overload.
A child may head bang when the nervous system is under-stimulated. For example, he/she might receive little or no sensory input from any of the sensory systems for a variety of natural or environmental causes. Therefore, he/she might head bang to stimulate their vestibular system (responsible for motion and balance in sensory system) in order to feel good.
On the flip side, a child may head bang when the nervous system is hypersensitive and overstimulated. This is an attempt to make them feel more comfortable because their neurotransmitters are unable to process the sensation around them. As noise, visuals, smells and taste can be overwhelming for children with autism, head banging is a way to decrease the stimulation as they can place their focus on that sensation and control it.
Solution: Provide sensory alternatives For children who are under stimulated, parents can provide these for vestibular input:
Vibrating pillow/stuffed animals/small massagers
For children who are overstimulated, parents can provide:
Low-lit monochromatic environment
Playing with sensory toys
It might seem unusual to think that your child engages in head banging behaviour because they are currently in pain. However, banging one’s head can serve as a distraction from pain or discomfort they are experiencing elsewhere in their body (eg. Ear infection, Headaches).
Additionally, Dr Edelson reported in his autism research that self-injurious behaviour “may increase the production and/or the release of endorphins. As a result, the individual experiences an anaesthesia-like effect and, ostensibly, he/she does not feel any pain while engaging in the behaviour (Sandman et al., 1983).” Therefore, the release of endorphins may provide the individual with a euphoric-like sensation that feels good. Solution: Safeguard the environment
Protect your child from injury by:
Padding areas you find your child banging his/her head frequently
Invest in a helmet
Offer safe alternatives for them to crash their bodies (eg. Pile of pillows, Bed)
Frustration If your child head bang during temper tantrum, it could be a way for him/her to vent strong emotions out. As they have yet to learn how to express their feelings adequately through words, they may use physical actions. Again, the child may be headbanging to comfort himself when he/she experienced a heightened emotion and stressful event. As headbanging is a rhythmic physical movement, the rocking action helps to soothe the child. Developmental experts believe that the rhythmic motion is akin to being rocked in the mother’s uterus and subsequently in the caregiver’s arms as an infant. This brings comfort to a child. Solution: Teach self-regulation or coping strategies To help children communicate their emotions, you can try to:
Teach them how to take deep breaths when they feel heightened emotions
Count it out (eg. 1 to 20)
Introduce social stories to teach about safety skills (eg. Why headbanging is dangerous)
Need for attention Sometimes, an ongoing head bang could be a way for your child to get attention. This is especially when he/she has made a connection that this will elicit a strong reaction to immediate attention from others. Therefore, it could turn into a cycle whereby the child will make use of this behaviour to draw your attention to rush over and immediately intervene. Solution: Give your child attention but not when he/she is banging
Ensure that positive attention is given when your child is NOT banging his/her head
Try not to make a big deal out of the behaviour as it could reinforce it
Do not scold or punish your child for head banging as your disapproval could worsen the situation
Seek professional help if your child’s behaviour is worrisome.
Finally, it is important to reach out for additional help when needed!
Head banging is quite common among children with autism. However, once these behaviours become a habit, it could be difficult to treat.
For a start, you can start booking a doctor’s appointment to rule out any medical issues that are causing your child pain or discomfort. If it is not a medical issue, you can explore other professional options such as behavioural therapy to correct this behaviour.
With all the strategies outlined above, we hope that it can help you to lovingly support your child when they display such behaviour.
Written by Jermaine Tan
BabyCenter Staff. (15 March , 2019). Head banging: Why it happens and what to do about it. Retrieved from A BabyCenter web site: https://www.babycenter.com/0_head-banging-why-it-happens-and-what-to-do-about-it_63575.bc
Hobbs, K. G. (2017). Q and A: Head Banging Solution. Retrieved from A Autism Parenting Magazine web site: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/a-head-banging-solution/
Hobbs, K. G. (2019). Autism, Head Banging and other Self Harming Behavior. Retrieved from A Autism Parenting Magazine web site: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-self-harm/#headbanging-attempt-to-communicate
Robson, D. (March, 2019). 15+ strategies to help with head banging in autism. Retrieved from A And Next Comes L web site: https://www.andnextcomesl.com/2019/03/how-to-help-with-head-banging-in-autism.html
Robson, D. (March, 2019). 5 reasons why your autistic child might be head banging. Retrieved from A Next and Comes L web site : https://www.andnextcomesl.com/2019/03/autism-head-banging.html
Zeliadt, N. (3 May , 2019). Sensory sensitivity may forecast self-injury in autistic children. Retrieved from A Spectrum News web site : https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/sensory-sensitivity-may-forecast-self-injury-autistic-children/