The Family Support Service can provide information and support about the needs of your family member with a severe learning disability. Our support is confidential, and we won’t judge you or tell you what to do.
What is Self-injurious Behaviour?
Self-injurious behaviour is any behaviour that results in someone causing physical harm to themselves. Examples of this behaviour shown by people with severe learning disabilities include: eye poking, self-biting, head banging and skin picking.
Help with this type of behaviour is usually given by psychologists or behavioural specialists. They will try to work out what ‘message’ the person is trying to say and then teach them a better way to ‘say’ it. The reasoning behind this is that:
- Children or adults with severe learning disabilities and self-injury have often learnt that their self-injury communicates things to others.
- They are not always doing this on purpose.
- They may have discovered by accident that if, for example, they hit their head, their carer will come over and give them a drink or attention.
- The ‘messages’ that self-injury often seem to convey include ‘come here’, ‘go away’, ‘I want a something” (e.g. a drink, food or a toy), ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I need help’.
It is possible to teach better ways to ‘say’ things when someone has very few language skills, including teaching children and adults to use new signs or picture cards to replace self-injury and show their carers what it is they want or need.
What can you do to help?
There is always a reason for the self injurious behaviour. Family and paid carers can do a range of things when a person is showing self-injurious behaviour:
- Consider pain as a cause
- Teach communication skills
- Ensure that the person is safe, but try not to react to the self-injury
- Seek advice from a psychologist or behavioural specialist.
Medication and protective devices
There is not much evidence that medicine can help with reducing self-injurious behaviour. People may try to use protective devices (e.g. helmets, arm splints, padding) if a person’s self-injury is very severe. These devices are best used as short term measures, as people can become dependent on them and they limit how much the person can move. Finding the reason for the behaviour and addressing it is key.
For more information read the Challenging Behaviour Foundation information sheet on Self-injurious Behaviour: