Stopping Biting in Children With Autism

by Cara Batema

    Parents of children with autism are often familiar with inappropriate behaviors; perhaps the most terrifying of these behaviors are self-injurious actions or actions that injure others, including biting. The Autism Research Institute website suggests there could be multiple reasons for engagement in self-injurious behaviors, so to effectively put a stop to this conduct, parents must find and address the cause.

    According to the Autism Research Institute site, biting can be a means of getting your attention. When you respond to biting behavior, your child might learn that you raise your voice or give a hug -- if he likes this response, he is more apt to repeat the biting behavior. To address this cause of biting, follow an approach called applied behavioral analysis. In this approach, you reinforce positive behaviors and decrease negative behaviors. For example, if your child bites to get your attention, ignore the behavior; if he goes for a period of time without biting, praise him for acting appropriately. If you are afraid of your child injuring himself or others through biting too much to ignore it, try to minimize your interaction with him and maintain limited facial expression.

    Another reason why a child with autism might bite himself or others is because he did not get something he wanted. If you frequently give your child what he wants after he bites himself, you reinforce this behavior. Instead, you should not give anything after self-injurious behavior. Applied behavioral analysis therapy can also help teach your child to act appropriately to get what he wants.

    According to experts with the National Autistic Society, biting can occur when a child lacks adequate skills for communicating needs or emotional states. Additionally, if your child has poor communication skills and you do not respond to a request the way he expects, he could become frustrated and turn to self-injurious behavior. For example, your child might bite if you give him the orange cup when he thought he pointed to the blue one. To address this cause of biting, teach your child functional communication skills. Verbal children can be taught simple words or phrases to communicate feelings or needs, and non-verbal children need to learn gestures or possibly sign language to communicate with you.

    Children with autism find a variety of environmental factors to be stressful, and they might also struggle with dealing with challenging tasks. These stressors lead to frustration, which in turn could lead to biting. To deal with this cause, make a list of your child’s triggers and avoid them when possible.

    The National Autistic Society website states that many children with autism experience sensory difficulties, so biting can be a means of sensory stimulation. Biting provides proprioceptive stimulation or feelings of movement of body parts, and it offers oral stimulation. Address this behavior by providing alternative, safe methods of stimulation. For example, if you find your child often bites his arm for stimulation, consider giving that area a massage or rub a textured cloth on his arm. If you find your child bites because he feels under-aroused, give him more sensory stimulation with bright or musical toys, aromatic candles or social interaction. If your child bites when he becomes overstimulated, practice relaxation techniques to calm your child before he bites.

    According to the Autism Research Institute website, biting can also be an indicator that your child feels pain. If biting does not normally occur, or if your child increases biting behavior when he feels sick, he might be biting to indicate something is not quite right. Check your child for a fever, or take him to a doctor if you suspect an illness like an ear infection.

    Children with autism might also bite because they want to avoid doing something or a particular situation. For example, if you say it’s time to go to the doctor’s office, your child might bite himself before you walk out the door to avoid leaving. Your initial response is likely to address the biting behavior, thus letting your child avoid the doctor’s visit. You must stand your ground and continue to make the request for your child to get in the car to go to the doctor’s office. You might need to take a moment to stop the biting behavior, but you must follow through with your request.

    Some brain damage or biochemical malfunction could cause children with autism to engage in self-injurious behavior. In these cases, biochemical interventions such as supplements or medications are the appropriate treatment. Additionally, applied behavioral analysis therapy can help teach your child appropriate behaviors.

    About the Author

    Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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