There are numerous interventions (treatments, services and other forms of support) designed to prevent or reduce self injurious behaviours in people on the autism spectrum. Most interventions are
These interventions fall into three main categories: psychological techniques, medications and other approaches. In practice, these approaches may overlap. For example, a multidisciplinary team may suggest the use of medications or physical exercise alongside a behavioural support programme.
We believe that, whichever interventions are used, it is important to treat the person with respect, listen to what they say and give them choices over their lives. We also believe that any intervention should follow the principles established by Fleming, Hurley and the Goth (2015).
Most researchers and practitioners believe it is essential to identify the specific factors that may be causing an individual to self injure before deciding the most appropriate intervention to use. This is normally done using a functional assessment, which is described by Minshawi et al (2014).
“Prior to the implementation of any intervention for SIB, an appropriate evaluation of SIB should include a combination of a thorough interview with the individual and/or caregivers, indirect assessments, behavioral observation, pre-treatment objective data collection (eg, behavior logs, scatterplots, event or duration recording), a medical evaluation, and a [functional behaviour assessment]. Being able to identify and thoroughly assess the occurrence and impact of a person’s SIB on their, and others’ quality of life, as well as identifying those specific situations or events which trigger and contribute to the persistence of the individual’s problem behavior is currently the accepted method to increase more person-centered treatment planning and progress monitoring in lieu of more reactive, punitive procedures.”
There are a number of psychological approaches sometimes used to prevent or reduce self injurious behaviours in people on the autism spectrum. Many of these approaches use behavioural techniques based on the principles of applied behaviour analysis and may be incorporated within a behavioural support plan. They include
Note 1: Some people on the autism spectrum do not enjoy social attention. For them, social attention may cause distress and increase challenging behaviours.
Note 2: We believe that “punishment-based” psychological techniques, such as response reduction procedures, aversives and physical restraint, should only be used in exceptional circumstances, with extreme caution and following established guidance on safeguarding. Some “punishment-based” behavioural strategies (such as the use of electric shock) are illegal in many countries including the UK.
Note 3: According to Minshawi et al (2014) “Physical restraint should be considered a last-resort form of behavioral intervention due to the restrictive nature of this intervention and the potential for injury or harm and should only be used as part of a structured behavior intervention plan”.
If the self injurious behaviour is pervasive, long standing or very severe, then medications may be considered. Many of these medications are designed to change the amount and the action of specific neurotransmitters in the brain in order to change the person’s behaviour. Those neurotransmitters include dopamine, endorphins, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid.
Specific types of medications used to treat self injurious behaviours include
Please note: Medications should only be used under the direction of a suitably qualified practitioner, such as a paediatrician or psychiatrist, and only after there has been no or limited response to other interventions. The effects should be carefully monitored and reviewed on a regular basis and the medication withdrawn if no significant benefits are seen. Some medications have significant side effects or interactions with other substances. Some may even make the self injurious behaviours worse in some people.
There are numerous other interventions that have been suggested as ways to prevent or reduce self injurious behaviours in people on the autism spectrum. These include
Please note: There is currently no high quality research evidence to suggest that these interventions are effective in reducing self injurious behaviours in people on the autism spectrum, although that does not necessarily mean that they do not work.