Animals, Autism, Self Injury

Can we learn anything from studies?

One of the truly distressing behaviors encountered in some autistic people is the problem of Self Injuring behavior.
This can range from skin picking, hair/eyebrow/eyelash pulling, chewing fingernails and fingertips, to biting oneself, using sharp objects to self injure, head banging , throwing oneself against sharp things such as corners of a wall or a table edge. It can include self cutting, burning, piercing, and multitudes of other behaviors which can cause permanent bodily damage.

You may be surprised to learn that self injuring behaviors are not confined to autism and certain mental disorders in humans. Animals can and do practice very similar forms of self injury.

Early studies on primates and zoo animals, as well as domesticated animals seemed to show that the worst self injuring behaviors were to be found in confined animals. (Labs, zoos, farms, kennels, and in animals kept as pets where close confinement and lack of social interaction with peers was a common condition).
Some studies at first blamed the behaviors on conscious use of self injury to gain attention. One earlier study said such behavior should be completely ignored and not rewarded by offering interactions, distractions, or other attention or show of concern.


Many studies since have put blame on unnatural environment, poor socialization or lack of ability to socialize naturally, lack of enrichment of environment, and some more recent studies are finding that brain chemicals are skewed in many cases, the subjects being studies being found lacking in dopamine or cortisol.

Many self injuries seem to be linked to frustrated sexuality and frustration of natural social/sexual behavior patterns in captivity as opposed to what would exist in the natural environment, and were assumed to be replacement for thwarted natural sexual behaviors.

Exposure to stress seemed to be involved and often made the self injury patterns worse or more frequent.

Forward now to studies being done in the past and currently involving human self injury.

Among diagnosed children with ASD studies using reports from their doctors said 28 percent of the autistic children in their care had some form of self harming behaviors.

Studies involving adults who were capable of self reporting showed that about 50 percent were actively or presently dealing with self injuring behaviors.

Studies of lower functioning individuals in care facilities show up to 60 percent struggle with self injurious behaviors.

Studies with both animals and humans have shown those who self injure often have lower levels of dopamine, norepinephirine, or cortisol.
Some studies show that certain chemicals used for sedation or anesthesia, or other purposes can induce self injuring behaviors.
Animals coming out of surgery seem to have more propensity to self injury immediately after. Studies pointed to the chemicals used to anesthetize the animal, as self injury was more common when certain anesthetics were used, than with others. I have not found comparative studies involving anesthesia with humans but I am wondering if the many calming drugs given to people who have anxiety or other behavioral problems might not be involved in some way for humans as well?

One very interesting human study tied certain self injury patterns with different known genetic disorders or syndromes. Named in the study as having recognizable tendencies to certain specific patterns of self injury are Lesch-Nyhan, Cornelia DeLange, Smith Magenis, and Prader- Willi syndromes. There may be others!


Self injuring groups studied showed overall lower verbal abilities, fewer self help skills, low mood, poor social interaction, higher levels of impulsivity, and higher levels of stereotyped, compulsive, or repetitive behaviors.

Another study showed the worst self injury behaviors were observed among those who had more severe sensory impairments, and among those who had physical illnesses associated with higher levels of pain.

I am not able to draw conclusions from these studies, but it seems evident to me that they provide some very strong clues which need further investigation.
Chemical, genetic, and environmental conditions all seem to play a part here. What will we learn from further studies?
Are there clues here to actions we can take to help those with Self Injuring Behaviors today?


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