Issues with self-harm are a common but often under-recognized issue within the autism community. This is why it is important for individuals with autism and their caregivers to have a general understanding of self-harm habits and how to help someone with autism who may be engaging in self-harm.
What is Self-Harm?
The NHS describes self-harm as an action when someone intentionally damages or injures their body. Self-harm is most often described as a way to express or cope with emotional distress and can come in many different forms.
While self-harm is not a symptom of autism, there are certain symptoms or situations related to autism that can lead some people with ASD to engage in self-harming behavior.
Different Ways People Self Harm
Different people have different tendencies when it comes to self-harm. Here are some of the most common ways in which people tend to harm themselves:
- Cutting themselves with a razor or other sharp object.
- Biting themselves.
- Picking or scratching at their skin to a point where they experience pain.
- Burning their skin on purpose.
- Hitting themselves or walls to feel pain.
- Pulling their hair from their head.
- Poisoning themselves.
Self-harm can come in several different forms and is always done with the intent to cause pain or bodily injury. What is frightening to many is that self-harm can become a pattern and nearly addictive to many, and it’s been proven to be prevalent in the autism community.
How Common is Self-Harm For People With Autism?
Self-harm can impact anyone. However, some studies suggest that autistic people are more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors than non-autistic people. Studies also suggest that autistic women are more likely to self-harm than autistic men. Adults with autism are also shown to deliberately hurt themselves much more often than other adults do.
Self-harm can cause serious bodily injury and may be a precursor for suicidal behaviors if left untreated. Research into the habits indicates that self-harm in people with autism typically arises from emotional pain or an inability to cope with pain, rather than being a type of repetitive behavior.
Self-Harm and Suicide
Self-harm can be a coping mechanism for some individuals, without suicidal intent. However, evidence shows that those who have self-harmed in the past have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts. They are also more likely to attempt suicide.
In fact, teens with autism are 28 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers without autism.
Self-harm can carry a significant risk to a person’s physical and emotional well-being. If you know someone who is self-harming or who has stated they have suicidal thoughts or intentions—it is important to get them to seek professional support and treatment as early as possible.
How Does Someone Get Help From Self-Harm?
Parents, loved ones, and caregivers of individuals with autism should be diligent when looking for the different signs and signals associated with self-harm. They should also help that loved one seek professional help right away if they are engaging in self-harming behavior. This type of support or intervention should always address the underlying causes of self-harm.
Going to counseling is a proven option for anyone engaging in self-harming behavior. There are plenty of therapists who work specifically with individuals with autism and those that specifically work with individuals who engage in self-harming behaviors.
Other recommended therapies include:
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Psychodynamic therapy
Some people with autism have found that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps them to understand why they self-harm and how to reduce this behavior. It does this by:
- Tackling self-criticism
- Improving self-esteem and confidence
- Teaching practical strategies to cope with difficult feelings.
This is one of the most relied-upon and trusted forms of therapy for those with autism and not only can help with self-harming behaviors but other tendencies as well.
Strategies and Advice
Talking to trusted friends or family members is another way that individuals with autism can get help with their self-harming behaviors. Having a support system is very important for those who self-harm. There are other strategies that people engaging in this type of behavior can try as well. This includes:
- Learning to recognize triggers– This includes keeping a diary to help understand what feelings may lead them to self-harm.
- Wait before self-harming- Encourage individuals who self-harm to wait and gradually build up the gaps between each period of self-harm, as a way to practice control over the situation.
- Practice techniques to manage and help regulate emotions- This includes calming exercises, and writing down feelings and distractions.
- Learn more about mental health- This can include getting help with stress, anxiety, and depression.
Recognizing and understanding the problem is essential to recovering from self-harming behavior and preventing it from becoming a pattern later on in life.
Advice for Parents
Knowing a child with autism is engaging in self-harming behavior can be devastating to any parent. Here is some advice for parents navigating this difficult situation.
- Show support and try to be non-judgmental. Ask your child how they would like to
- be supported in this situation.
- Encourage honest and open communication.
- Relate to your child as a person and try to not just focus on self-harm.
- Have empathy and understanding about what they are doing, knowing it is likely a coping mechanism for something else.
- Consider and address what may be causing their underlying distress such as social situations or their school environment.
- Let your child be in control of their decisions and get them medical attention if needed.
- Encourage them to speak to a professional about self-harm.
- Remind your child of their positive qualities and the things that they have going for them.
- Discourage any online content that may appear to promote self-harm.
While these tips can be of great help, there are also things that you should avoid, such as:
- Attempting to force your child to change without addressing the underlying issue.
- Ignoring signs of self-harm or injuries.
- Overly focusing on injuries in a way that makes them feel ashamed.
- Acting or communicating in a way that threatens to take control away.
- Labeling self-harm as attention-seeking.
Parents may also want to attend their own support group for parents of children with autism or seek professional help to assist them in navigating these difficult waters.
Self-harm is a very scary, and very real, issue among individuals with autism. While no one ever wants their loved one with autism to engage in self-harm activities, it is important to understand this behavior and to be able to look for signs of self-harm so that you can intervene properly.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.