Question: Why Do Children Engage in Head Banging?
Headbanging and autism can be a disturbing combination. While it’s terrifying to witness as a parent, it’s important to note it’s a surprisingly common behavior in many children with autism. Up to 20 percent of babies and toddlers bang their heads purposefully. Among them, boys are three times more likely to engage in this behavior than girls. Headbanging often starts at around six months, peaking anywhere between 18-24 months of age. This habit can stretch out for months (even years), but most children outgrow this behavior by the age of three to four. This behavior may extend later for children diagnosed with autism, developmental delays, or who have suffered from neglect.
Causes of headbanging in children with autism
1. Sensory Processing
Headbanging, like body rocking, is a rhythmic physical movement. When a child is in utero, he/she feels the sensation of being rocked as his/her mother moves about. He/She later feel it again when rocked in his/her caregiver’s arms as an infant.
As children mature, this rocking sensation is further developed through play that activates both the vestibular system in the brain (the part of the sensory system responsible for motion sense and balance) and the proprioceptive system (the part of the sensory system feeding information about the body’s position in space). It is often used in activities like sliding, swinging, and riding bikes.
A child may headbang when his/her nervous system is under-stimulated. For instance, he/she might receive limited to no sensory input from any of the sensory systems for a variety of natural or environmental causes. On the other hand, a child whose nervous system is hyper-sensitive and thus over-stimulated may headbang as a way to seek comfort.
In this instance, head banging decreases the stimulation around him/her while moderating his/her over-loaded sensory system.
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Head Banging Solutions
It is important to rule out any organic physical and medical reasons for the child who is head banging (i.e., ear infection or toothache). A child may headbang as a way to reduce pain. It distracts him/her from the pain and gives a sense of control.
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3. A way to seek your attention
Some children who engage in continuous head banging will make the connection that this will elicit a strong reaction and immediate attention. This will begin a cycle of using this behavior to get attention. When this happens, you can seek help from an expert to correct the problem.
When a child has difficulty expressing himself/herself, he/she may engage in this behavior out of heightened emotions and frustration.
It is important to note there are many underlying components of headbanging behaviors. Multiple factors often contribute to the manifestation of this habit. Ensure regular contact with your pediatrician, therapists, and other professionals to help you identify underlying triggers of headbanging, which may be unique to your child. With a clear plan, you can learn how to stop headbanging.
Sensory strategies for headbanging
As head banging is a sign of a child’s need for release, it can be altered with other physical activities that are not harmful to the child. Some tips for giving replacement behavior for headbanging are:
1. Consider padding areas you find your child frequently bangs his/her head against.
2. Use a headbanging helmet with an MD prescription.
3. Utilize vibration. This will activate the vestibular system, and your child will thus receive input in a safer and more functional way. Examples include vibrating stuffed animals, vibrating toothbrushes, vibrating pillows, vibrating small massagers, etc.
4. Have your child sit in a rocking chair at home and school.
5. Have a yoga ball chair at home and at school to help provide vestibular input (make sure it is stable with a proper back).
6. Have your child do movement exercises that go against resistance and activate the proprioceptive system.
7. Have your child do movement breaks that incorporate rotation and place the head below the heart (to integrate vestibular input). An example of this would be the yoga pose of “Sunrise, Sunset.” Have your child stand with feet planted and back straight. Your child should reach up with straight arms while taking a deep breath in.
This should be followed by your child reaching down towards the floor and touching his/her feet while breathing out (it’s okay if your child bends his/her knees here).
8. Have your child help with chores around the house that require lifting heavy objects. This can be the laundry basket or a water bucket. Also, encourage your child to push and pull chairs before and after meals. Teach him/her to pick up items from the floor to clean up, etc.
9. Use a weighted hat/weighted halo to provide proprioceptive input to the head. A regular baseball cap is also fine, as this will still provide input to the head.
10. Have your child use a tactile brush around the hair area at transitions (you can buy a bathing brush with bristles at your local drug store). While many children with ASD do not like having their hair combed or brushed, having them use a tactile brush themselves will allow them control over a noxious feeling while providing necessary input at the same time.
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Head Banging Solutions
By providing children who engage in consistent head-banging behavior with doses of routine sensory input throughout the day, we can help moderate feelings of distress by establishing a calmer sensory system, a happier child, and (I’m sure) a thrilled family.
Autism and head banging can be a stressful situation to face, but it can get better with professional help and corrective measures.