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Biting Nails in Autism: Causes and Management

June 10, 2024

When you get nervous or anxious, have you ever bitten your nails? It’s a common behavior for many people, depending on the circumstances they are facing. Nail biting in autism is often observed.

It is often one of many stimming behaviors exhibited by autistic children. These repetitive behaviors can help fulfill a need for oral stimulation. However, they can also cause problems for children with autism. But there are ways to manage this stimming behavior and help with this oral fixation.

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Reasons behind nail biting in autism

There can be many potential causes for nail biting in autism. The simplest explanation is a stimming behavior the child does unconsciously. Much like hand flapping or head banging, stimming helps autistic children cope with stress, anxiety, or possibly sensory overload.

Children with autism spectrum disorders may also seek sensory stimulation from biting their fingernails. They may feel uncomfortable when not engaged in some type of stimming behavior.

Plus, some stims may not be appropriate in certain social situations. Nail biting can often allow them to stim without disrupting others.

Understanding repetitive behavior in autism

Repetitive behaviors, while not unique to autism, tend to be common among autistic people. They also tend to be the first signs of autism to make themselves present.

When a child with autism tends to require more support, repetitive behaviors, and stimming tend to become more pronounced.

Many repetitive, stimming behaviors can be linked to autism. These include nail-biting, thumb-sucking, repeating words, chewing, hand flapping, head banging, and rocking.

These behaviors can help the child with self-stimulation or serve as a coping mechanism. They can also serve as a form of nonverbal communication to help parents be aware of the potential for stress or anxiety.

Risks associated with nail-biting

While the nail-biting habit might help autistic children cope, it can also cause some issues if the child is constantly biting. These risks can lead to both physical and social impacts on the child.

Physical impacts

  1. Skin damage – If you’ve ever bitten your nails, you know they can become ragged over time, especially near the cuticle. Biting nails can also lead to hanging nails, which leads to another issue.
  2. Infections – Nail biting can also allow bacteria to enter any open flesh caused by the bite. This can lead to a painful infection around the nail. Bacteria can also move from the nail to the mouth, causing oral infections.
  3. Dental problems – Nail biting also puts excess strain on teeth. This can lead to issues like fractured and chipped teeth and misalignment that may require braces in the future. Dental problems can cause a lot of pain and make it difficult to chew.
A young boy biting his nails https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/biting-nails-in-autism/

Social impacts

A child with autism biting their nails can also lead to social and emotional struggles. There can be a stigma surrounding nail-biting that leads to bullying from other children.

The child may be dealing with stress or anxiety disorders and not know how to react in these social situations.

Bullying can also lead to sensory overload, which makes the nervous habit of biting one’s nails more common. The child may need to seek sensory input, leading to more stimming and social struggles.

How to manage nail biting behavior in autistic people

Stimming behaviors can often be very important for your autistic child, but sometimes those behaviors must be managed for the child’s benefit. There are ways to encourage your child to stop biting their nails. These include:

1. Identify the triggers

The first thing a parent must do is figure out the underlying causes of the child’s nail-biting. Once the cause is recognized, parents and children can work on a plan to address the behaviors.

2. Provide alternative coping strategies

Depending on the trigger, it may not be easy to remove. Parents should work on helping children develop an alternative stimming behavior to help their child cope with anxiety or stress.

Maybe give them a stress ball or fidget toy. You could also get them a device that allows them to chew on something without damaging their teeth, mouth, or nails.

3. Positive reinforcement

If your child can refrain from biting the nails on their fingers and toes, then positive reinforcement could help them continue this trend.

It can be something as simple as a small treat or extra screen time. However, rewards for managing behavior can lead to further management of that behavior.

4. Cover the nails

If your child is constantly biting their nails, try covering them to help reduce the nail-biting. Some children might enjoy having nail polish as it will provide a different sensory feel. Others may need gloves to prevent them from biting.

5. Seek professional help

If your child refuses to stop biting their nails, you may need help from a healthcare professional. ABA therapy can help parents understand while their children bite their nails and suggest ways to address the habit.


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Practice compassion, support, and understanding

Biting nails can be an oral fixation for autistic people who are seeking sensory input. While it may seem like an inoffensive stimming behavior, it can cause pain to the fingers, toes, and mouth. Children can have difficulty managing their behavior.

But, if you are concerned about how this form of stimming could affect your child, there are ways for a nail-biter to manage their behaviors and work towards changing them. It may take a lot of work from parents, but most people can address the issue with help from their loved ones.

FAQs

Q: Is nail biting a sensory issue?

A: Nail biting and other chewing behaviors are believed to be sensory-seeking behaviors, often for oral fixation. They are often connected to a condition called hyposensitivity.

Q: Is a toddler biting nails a sign of autism?

A: Nail biting is one of many early signs of autism spectrum disorder among toddlers. However, nail-biting, by itself, is not inherently a sign of autism. If parents are worried, they should seek out more information.

Q: How do I get my autistic child to stop biting his nails?

A: One of the best ways to prevent children from biting their nails is to cover them. Nail polish or gloves covering the fingers do the best job.

Q: Is chewing nails a stim?

A: Stimming is a regular part of everyone’s life. However, children with autism tend to stim more than neurotypical children. While there are differences in the types of stims, nail biting tends to be a common oral stim.

Q: Why do kids with autism chew on things?

A: Chewing on fingernails is an oral stimming exercise that can serve as a coping mechanism for anxiety or stress. Many kids who bite their nails as a stimming behavior tend not to chew on other things.

References:

Al-Sehaibany FS. Occurrence of oral habits among preschool children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pak J Med Sci. 2017 Sep-Oct;33(5):1156-1160. doi: 10.12669/pjms.335.13554. PMID: 29142556; PMCID: PMC5673725

Ghanizadeh A. Can behavioral sensory processing problems guide us to a better pharmacological management of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?: a case report. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2009 Dec;6(12):40-3. PMID: 20104291; PMCID: PMC2811143.

Masiran R. Stimming behaviour in a 4-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder. BMJ Case Rep. 2018 Feb 23;2018:bcr2017223671. doi: 10.1136/bcr-2017-223671. PMID: 29477998; PMCID: PMC5847983.

Nzomiwu CL, Adenaike AS, Ashiwaju O, Oredugba FA (2018): Self-Injurious Behaviour in Children with Special Health Care Needs: a Report of Three Cases. Nigerian Journal of Dental and Maxillofacial Traumatology; 1(1&2):15-22 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Chioma-Nzomiwu/publication/337000624_Self-Injurious_Behaviour_in_Children_with_Special_Health_Care_Needs_a_Report_of_Three_Cases/links/5dbeff8992851c8180288ccd/Self-Injurious-Behaviour-in-Children-with-Special-Health-Care-Needs-a-Report-of-Three-Cases.pdf

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