Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Helmets and Head-banging

Alex has been having a problem with head-banging at school lately.  He's been banging his head since he was eighteen months old and it's probably one of the most upsetting behaviours he does.  

It began with an occasional incident, but the deliberateness of it bothered us.  He would be sitting down on the floor and then he would very carefully line up a toy and then hurl his whole torso forward and bang his head on the floor next to the toy.  Then he'd continue playing with the toy as if nothing was wrong.  It was one of the first unambiguous signals we had that something wasn't right.

We tried to intervene and the more we tried, the more he did it.   We would hold him and try to prevent him from banging.  He would squirm and fight us for hours and then still bang his head as soon as he got free.  He started to do it during any sign of conflict or if we told him he couldn't do something.  Eventually, what began as a once-in-a-while thing became a daily thing, then an hourly thing, and then we were getting 50-60 incidents per day.

So we put him in a helmet to try and protect him.  And watched the incidents soar to 100 + per day, along with the intensity of the strikes.  We sought advice from any number of people, all of whom were baffled.

We had catalogued the behaviour and knew that while the first head-bang was usually unpredictable, the ones after that seemed to be triggered by our interference.  So we made one of the hardest parenting decisions we ever made: ignore our child hurting himself.  We took off the helmet since it only seemed to encourage him to bang his head harder and we trained ourselves not to react.  Not a flinch, not an indrawn breath, nothing.  

Six weeks later we were back to head-banging happening every once in a while.  A few times a week but nothing like the intensity we'd experienced before.  Slowly, it continued to diminish until it became much rarer.

It's counter-intuitive but I find a lot of autism parenting is like that.  I can't let myself get caught up in what should work.  I have to observe and record to find out what actually works and then embrace it, no matter how it seems to run against my instincts.

His teachers wanted to use the helmet to deal with this latest round of headbanging.  I can understand.  It's still viscerally upsetting to watch Alex do it.  If anyone else hit him that way, I would have them up on assault charges (assuming I didn't qualify for assault charges myself for retaliating).  But they listened when I explained how it can make things much worse.  Hopefully, we can find another solution which will work for them.

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