Headbanging may be a scary and upsetting thing to watch your child do. It is considered a self-injurious behavior (SIB), but SIB’s and/or headbanging are NOT considered a core symptom of autism, although children with autism are at greater risk of SIB’s such as head-banging.
It is also important to note that just because your child engages in headbanging now, it does not mean he/she will always do so and there are things you can do that can help to decrease how often it is happening. As with all behaviors, there is a reason your child is banging his/her head, so finding that reason or the multiple reasons he/she may be doing it, may help you to keep your child safe.
Some common reasons your child may be headbanging include:
- being in pain
- trying to communicate
- seeking attention
- sensory overload or sensory deficit
Here are some ways you can work on reducing headbanging:
1. Talk to your child’s physician
Your child’s doctor may also be able to do a physical exam to either find or rule out a physical reason your child is banging his/her head. The physician may be able to identify the source of possible pain and/or illness that is contributing to discomfort for your child, such as an earache, gastrointestinal difficulties (stomach upset), infection, etc. There may be medications that can decrease self-injurious behaviors and/or your doctor may prescribe the use of a helmet. You may be able to get a helmet for your child without a prescription, but if your child’s doctor recommends a helmet, insurance may cover the cost.
2. Talk to a behavior therapist or applied behavioral analyst (ABA)
A specialist may be able to complete an assessment that identifies triggers, environmental influences, and/or things that are reinforcing the behavior. For more information about ABA see here: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/high-quality-aba-treatment/
3. Talk to an occupational therapist (OT) trained in sensory processing
An OT may be able to help you find out whether or not the head banging is a result of a sensory need or a sensory trigger. He/she may also be able to recommend sensory strategies such as vibration, deep pressure, noise canceling headphones, or certain types of play activities that give your child’s body the input it needs to feel calmer.
4. Talk to a speech and language pathologist
children with autism may not be able to express their needs or wants, and expressive language may be a challenge for them which may be causing increased levels of frustration that lead to more headbanging. A speech therapist may be able to recommend alternative ways of communicating that do not require spoken words, and if your child is better able to communicate, he/she may not need to headbang as often.
5. Maintain a journal on behavior
Keep a journal during a typical week, with data about when, where, and for how long your child engages in headbanging. Having data about the behavior will help any professionals working with your child to better understand how to help and may also be a good way to notice improvements as you implement any of the suggestions provided by those professionals. Keeping a journal can make patterns of behavior more obvious, and it may also give you clues about what scenarios make your child more likely to headbang so that you can avoid them.
6.Try not to react
Try not to over-respond when your child engages in headbanging. Obviously, do your best to keep your child safe, but try to avoid giving verbal instructions and/or sharing emotional reactions with your child at that time. When a child is banging his/her head, he/she is not likely able to follow verbal directions and if he/she is doing it to gain your attention, verbally and emotionally interacting may actually increase the behavior over time.
Headbanging is a complicated and potentially dangerous behavior that may need input from many of your child’s team members, and it needs to be addressed consistently by all people involved with your child. Seeking input from various perspectives will help you to develop a solid plan for how to address and decrease the behavior, both in the moment and over time. Best wishes, and may this be a brief behavior in your life and your child’s life.
This article was featured in Issue 82 – Finding Peace This Season