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Thursday, January 22, 2015

When your child bites---Unhelpful Internet Autism Advice

I don't look to the internet for advice on autism much anymore.  I've realized that even within the umbrella of ASD (autism spectrum disorders), Janey has aspects of her personality that are a bit unusual, and that even if she didn't, that old saying about if you've met one kid with autism, you've met one kid with autism holds very true.  It's hard for anyone to give advice about any specific autistic child.  That doesn't, however, keep people from trying.

I was imagining if I had a fairly newly diagnosed child and a problem to solve, and if I sat down at the computer to look for help.  Let's say, for example, I wanted some advice on how to deal with my child biting me.  I did a search this morning looking to see what I could find.  I realized that the three major pieces of advice I kept finding over and over each made me sort of mad, in different ways, in what they assumed about my hypothetical child or about me as a parent.  Why, you ask?  Well, here they are, with my reactions.

"Figure out what prompts the biting"

There's all kinds of variants of this.  I am not saying you shouldn't of course try to figure out what prompts the biting, or in the words ABA therapy uses a lot, what the antecedent is.  I'm just saying that almost any parent in the world would have already done that automatically.  I don't think most of us would be thinking "I'll just view this biting incident in pure isolation.  I won't think a bit about what led up to it".  OF COURSE we have already tried to figure out the prompt.  Sometimes, it's very apparent.  You told your kid no to more cookies and they bit you?  You tried to dress you child and they chomped on your hand?  In those cases, knowing the cause does little good.  What do you do---just give them cookies any time they ask?  Explain to them why they can't have more cookies?  Give them carrots instead of cookies?  Maybe you have a child where those solutions would work, but if you do, you probably don't have an autistic child or a child that bites.

If the cause of the biting isn't readily apparent, and you have to search for it, chances are it's not really the cause.  Kids with autism, as a rule, aren't subtle.  They aren't biting in response to some obscure stimuli.  Often, the sad truth probably is that they are biting because they are upset over something that can't be changed at all, or they are biting for no reason that is external.  In either of these cases, figuring out the cause does nothing.

As parents, we are pretty clued into our kids, and this piece of advice has always bothered me because it assumes parents are clueless.  If the cause is something we can figure out and we are able to change, WE ALREADY HAVE.  If your child hates the sound of the vacuum, you vacuum when they aren't around.  You have already figured that out.  That is not what is causing the biting.

"Give the child something else to bite.  Use a sensory diet"

Oh, wow.  That never once would occur to me.  If my child has just bitten me, all I really need to do is give them a bite toy!  That will fix things!  Oh, there's this stuff called "chewelry" they can bite instead?  You've fixed it all for me!

This one insults the child with autism.  I don't think any child is biting a parent or anyone else because they have nothing else to bite.  There are many, many, many things around a room that can be bitten.  If it's YOU who the child chooses to bite, that's not because you are just handy.  A bite toy or chewelry MIGHT work if your child is chewing their sleeves, or pencils, or something like that, but if they are biting aggressively, it's not really about wanting to bite in gneeral.

Sensory diet.  How I hate that term.  Here's what is meant by that, if you don't know.  It's not that I don't think that parts of what the "diet" consists of aren't helpful things for a child with autism, or for any child or adult.  It's the term I hate.  It smacks of the kind of 5 dollar word used by smug professionals to justify their pay.  I'm being nasty there, and I hope I am not insulting anyone who has used that term.  But use it internally.  When you say it to a parent with autism, you are making them feel like you know some special secret way to help their child.

"React calmly to the biting"

Now here's where the "autism parent as superhero" myth comes in.  Imagine someone has just bitten your hand.  Hard.  Hard enough to leave marks, to maybe even break the skin.  Hard enough that you had to pry their mouth off you.  Hard enough to hurt very, very badly.  Would you react calmly?  Would you say in a calm, steady voice "No biting", without any exclamation point?

Maybe other people can react calmly to severe unexpected pain, but I can't.  When Janey bites me, I yell.  I yell because it hurts.  I yell because I can't help yelling if I am in terrible pain.  I yell because I am angry she bit me.  Yes, I'll admit that.  When Janey bites me, it makes me angry.  And I don't think it's wrong that she sees that.

If by "react calmly", the experts are saying not to hit your child or bite them back, by all means, they should say so.  You SHOULD NOT hit your child or bite them back.  But you already knew that, and didn't need to be told, I would guess.  But staying calm?  We are not superheroes.  No matter how many times you are bitten, if you are really bitten, you scream.  And I think it's probably a good thing for a child to see that biting hurts.  They have to live in the real world, and they will, their whole lives.  People are going to react to being bitten.  And you are a person.

So, after I've dissed all this advice, do I have any to offer in its place?  Not really.  And that is what I wish was admitted more often.  If your child is biting you, and you are a parent with enough sense to come in out of the rain, you have probably already done all you can do to understand, react to and if possible, prevent the biting.  The biting that still occurs is part of the autism.  It may come and go.  It might get better when things are better overall.  It might get worse at times.  But the truth is if your child sometimes bites, they are probably going to keep on sometimes biting.  Protect yourself.  If they are agitated, try not to get in a position where they can bite you.  If they do bite you, get away from them so they don't bite you again.  Put ice on it.  That helps.  And if you yell at them "NO BITING!  YOU HURT ME!"---well, it probably won't do any good, but it's an honest reaction and might not be a bad thing for them to hear.


Jaynedeaux said...

I had special books made on etsy via the autism shoppe
That helped with the biting and eloping?
Has Janey ever been examined for P.C.O.S?

pianorox said...

I love the new picture of Janey on the blog! She looks so happy.

David Fee said...

"Figure out what prompts the biting"

I was bitten today by my daughter because I coughed. She bit my shoe so it didn't hurt but I'll refrain from breathing in the future.

"Give the child something else to bite. Use a sensory diet"

Nothing quite beats the taste of Dad. Mom's a side order by comparison.

"React calmly to the biting"

Makes me want to bite the fool that wrote this nonsense.

Diana said...

Thank you for posting this I have 4 daughters and one son on the spectrum. My son exhibits more of the things people classify as autistic one of his favorites is roaring like a dinosaur. I have tried to find things that help but most things just dont most people just think he is being naughty however I know he roars when he is frustrated and about to hit. So at least I have a warning it can be alarming when he just does it. I have been following you for quite some time and have really appreciated all your posts. Sorry Janey bites that can be most difficult.

Jonathan Bricklin said...

I was searching on "bitten" and "autism" and came to this entry. My wife just had a article published in Autism Spectrum News titled "Bitten By The Truth" so I was moved to leave you a comment. I have no advice you probably haven't alread heard and thought, yeah, right, next. I can say it's been a long haul, and very taxing. The link to the publication is and the article is in the Spring 2015 issue and begins on page 29. Peace, Jonathan