Biting Behavior in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Biting is a behavior that is common among children with autism spectrum disorders. All human behavior can be assessed for function. In typically developing children, biting is seen as an aggressive behavior. In children with autism, biting is seen as either aggressive or self-stimulating behavior. Most often, children with autism who bite (either themselves or others) do it for self-stimulating purposes. Children on the spectrum are often affected by sensory processing disorders. Light touch, certain sounds and other sensory input can become incredibly overwhelming, producing anxiety. Children on the spectrum may be seen biting their hands as a way to reduce this anxiety by centralizing the discomfort in one location. Others may lack sensory awareness and therefore require more intense input to feel anything. These individuals may bite themselves or others in order to receive sensory feedback they are seeking.
Oral fixation is a form of sensory stimulation. Children on the spectrum may be inclined to bite their own hands and objects that are not meant to be chewed in order to find relief from their oral fixation. Some children bite because they are seeking to activate their pain receptors to an isolated place. When a child receives sensory overload from their surroundings, they might be compelled to “control” the input by focusing on painful stimuli.
Some children on the spectrum bite caregivers, siblings and other people. Social impairments can limit communication and interactions, leaving the child with few tools to resolve internal or external conflict. When these problems arise, they bite others in response to conflict. This might be seen as an avoidance or aggression tactic to avoid overstimulation or non-preferred activities. As a behavioral problem or a stimulation source, biting can be treated and replaced with more pro-social behaviors. Applied behavioral analysis, therapeutic massage and floortime are all treatments which are noted to produce positive changes in biting behavior.
In order to reduce or eliminate the biting behavior, its function must first be determined. Once a caregiver understands why the child bites, it is much easier to apply an intervention. When the child is seeking oral stimulation, replacement items that are appropriate for biting might be an option. Raw carrots, celery or chewing gum might be appropriate substitutions. If the child is seeking to centralize pain or discomfort, anxiety reducing exercises might be helpful. One typical intervention strategy for this problem is to coach the child through breathing exercises. If this is not a possibility due to communication or functioning capability, the child can be offered a more positive form of stimulation. If the child is biting his hands, give him something to keep his hands busy. Some parents find that a tub of dry beans filled with a few small toys hidden inside of it is a good way to distract sensory seeking hands.
Children who bite others require constant supervision. If they are not supervised, they pose potential harm to themselves and those around them. They must be taught replacement behaviors to stop the biting. This is done most effectively through interventions such as applied behavior analysis. In this type of treatment, the child is rewarded for positive behaviors and mal-adaptive behaviors are ignored. The child learns that they will not gain access to their desired target through biting. They might also be exposed to a punitive environmental factor that diminishes with decreased biting behavior.
Until the biting habits have ceased, it is imperative that these children are not left unattended for any amount of time. Biting can be a very stressful behavior for both parent and child to overcome. However, with patience and dedication to treatment, it is possible to eliminate this behavior.
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