The Autism Chronicles: Self-Injury Hurts Everyone

At the beginning of the school year, Charlie had some big issues. We got regular reports that he was biting and hitting his teacher and aides. This isn’t an uncommon behavior with non-verbal children, but we only saw it at home when he was extremely frustrated, angry or in pain. It wasn’t a regular occurrence, so the fact that he was doing it at school was troubling. New town, new home, new school – new acting out. I, of course, felt super guilty for bringing them down here and his obvious dislike of the situation. We worried they were going to kick him out of school, that he was going to seriously injure someone, that maybe something bad was happening at school to trigger this behavior. Check out news stories of abuse in schools against autistic students – it’s absolutely horrifying how frequent and severe it is.

Luckily, this behavior settled down after a couple of weeks. A combination of Charlie getting used to the teachers, teachers getting used to Charlie, and vast quantities of pepperoni to get him to do as asked. He began getting more and more positive reports, he came home with crafts projects and started using utensils when he ate. There was an outburst every once in a while, but quickly diffused without injury to anyone. We were feeling pretty good, this experiment was working, we were a functional, happy family.

Of course, this couldn’t last. Within the past month or so, the hitting and biting are back. Wait, that’s not quite accurate – they never really went away, but, again they would surface when there was something seriously wrong. Now, it’s more frequent – like every day, more than once frequent. And the worst part is he’s biting and hitting himself. Hard. Leaving bruises hard. And it’s terrifying.

It’s difficult to describe how horrible it feels to watch your kid hurt himself. To see him bite his own arm so hard, you can’t just pull it out of his mouth out of fear that he’s going to break skin. To have him hit his head against the table or wall or glass door. To have to restrain him from hurting himself, knowing that you will probably be the new target of his meltdown.

And it isn’t always negative emotions that sets this off. He’ll do it when he’s very very happy or excited. We were having a great morning last weekend, everyone was happy. And I look over at Charlie in the chair next to me and he’s biting his knee with a grin on his face. I know it hurt him, he was rubbing it after. Or he’ll pound on his thigh when he’s having a good time, wherever he is.

There’s no good way to stop this. We try to redirect so the situation that has him all wound up is diffused. I’ll hold his hands, not let his arms near his mouth. I’ll shout and put him in time out. I’l wrap him up in a giant squeeze, hoping the full body pressure displaces the need to hurt. I’ll try being as calm as possible, shushing him to settle down, get control, come back. Some things work some times – nothing is magically ending it. This isn’t a unique Charlie behavior – it’s a major autism problem and everyone on the internet has different solutions and success rates. It’s frustrating and depressing and terrifying. As he gets older, bigger, stronger this will only become more severe if he doesn’t break the habit.

Seeing his arm covered in bruises has made me cry. It makes me sick to my stomach. He’s already moved past whatever set him off, but I can’t brush it aside. Saying “please, baby, don’t hurt your self, don’t hurt Charlie” leaves my mouth dry and my heart heavy. Every day without this is a triumph, but it’s hard to celebrate when you know it’s just around the corner. And I finally understand when my parents would say “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” Seeing your kid in pain hurts, knowing your kid is the cause of that pain? It’s a killer.

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