Trigger warning: Self Harm and autism
In the same way that there are natural ways for the autistic body to regulate such as stimming (self stimulatory behaviour), for many autistic people, self-harm is actually also an organic way that our brain tells our body to regulate; just as there are many organic functions that bodies and brains of all diversities engage in with harmful or unhealthy ways of seeking balance or restoration to calm.
For non autistics, these can be using food in particular ways, smoking, drinking, recreational drug use, etc.
For us autistic people, we will first comply with our intrinsic or organic stress relieving physiological functions as a response to our environment.
In short, we’re more likely to use our bodies to find calm before seeking relief from extrinsic or outside sources.
This means that there will be harmful behaviours that will be difficult for our loved ones to witness. As parents, it sends waves of panic through us, it is devastating to bear witness to and it can also be completely disempowering and traumatic.
With this knowledge, it’s important to tap into the experience of the actual person who is engaging in self harm.
It is an indication of serious distress.
For autistic children, it can happen regularly and instantly without thought.
For autistic adults, it can mean that we have experienced stress and distress on an ongoing basis and we have now lost the ability to disengage or restrain from harming ourselves.
And yes, those of us who are speaking, educated, articulate, intelligent, whichever adjectives are attached to that most unhelpful functioning label of ‘high functioning autistic’ also experience this level of distress, where we engage in self harm.
It is imperative to realise that when we're asking or expecting a person who by nature might hit themselves or pull their hair or bite themselves to refrain, we're actually asking them to do something that feels unnatural and uncomfortable.
As distressing and uncomfortable as it is for loved ones, parents, educators, carers, to see autistic people they love engaging in self harm, it's really important to accept that redirection and replacement does take time and patience, particularly in children.
How do we help?
We allow autistic people to move their bodies, stim, regulate in the ways that are organic, natural and functional for their neurotype.
We provide the space and acceptance for diversity.
We stop labelling autistic regulation as ‘nonfunctional behaviour’.
Everything we do, every way we move, every sound we make, every activity we engage in, has a purpose, a function, brings comfort and contributes to maintaining a level of equilibrium; balance.
We encourage and allow authentic responses and emotions.
We allow anger.
We stop buying into the non autistic narrative that autistic people are dangerous when angry, or that they should not be allowed the right or freedom to anger.
We stop taking away the rights and freedoms and autonomy of autistic people.
We stop forcing autistic people into services and therapies they either don’t want or haven’t agreed to, just because they are autistic.
We stop buying into the belief that all autistic people are black and white in their processing, unable to take the perspective of others and are therefore unreliable in their thinking.
THAT is called gaslighting.
We explore what it is that hurts, harms, distresses and discomforts our autistic children from early on and we understand that our sensory needs and triggers change over time.
We don’t have professionals figure our children out and run with the same idea of who they are and what they need for the rest of their lives.
Autistic people change. They grow. They develop.
We stop disallowing autistic children the patience and time to develop at their own rate.
We stop panicking about who they will become and start paying attention to the incredible little beings they are NOW.
We provide alternatives to self harm such as the safe expression of anger, allowing movement experiences and opportunities that provide deep and powerful impact, such as punching, kicking, screaming, dancing, running, screaming into a pillow or screaming aloud in a safe place.
Non autistic people scream, yell, share their feelings openly, have opinions.
Allow autistic people the same.
We remove triggers.
We change the environment, not the child.
They are perfectly whole and complete as who they are; wonderful, luminous, autistic beings.
We demonstrate and model patience, care, understanding, love, kindness, tolerance and acceptance.
Self harm is often a physical expression of an internalised experience of non acceptance, fear, shame, the inability and lack of safety to express ourselves and the rage that accompanies being shut down.
We autistic people have an enormous intensity and depth of emotional range.
Our feelings are big. Our sadness, our anger, our joy.
It is deep, all consuming, language-less.
As children, we have little capacity to cope with those feelings.
Please, love us. Accept us. Embrace us.
Create safety and security for us in order for us to not feel the need to panic and experience anxiety and distress around being shut down.