How to Redirect Self Injurious Behavior | Autism

Self Injurious Behavior and Autism

Self-injurious autistic behaviors do not illustrate why stimming, or self-regulatory behaviors, are bad.

Stimming is harmless by default and crucial to autistic individuals’ ability to self-regulate and cope with everything in their life and the world.

mom consoling a child

Instead of seeking to stop autistic stims altogether, self-injurious behaviors can be redirected to safer activities.

Rules of Stimming

There are no official rules of stimming, but in the name of encouraging safe behaviors, these three rules or guidelines can be used to reinforce harmless stimming:

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  1. You cannot hurt yourself.
  2. You cannot hurt others.
  3. You cannot destroy property.

These guidelines apply to real life circumstances, from depression to vandalism.

Self-injurious autistic stims and their alternatives

Nail biting, lip biting, hair chewing, shirt chewing

Chewelry, or jewelry made for chewing, is the best alternative for individuals on the autism spectrum who keep destroying their nails, lips and shirts. Chewelry helps with hair chewing and eating, because there are often different textures available or chewing on the beads fulfills the sensory need to chew on something.

person's chin and lips

Another alternative is flossing, though you should supervise your child with the floss. Although it does fulfill the sensory need associated with chewing hair or using hair like floss, it can lead to bleeding gums due to overuse.

Floss is not the best alternative, because the feeling is addictive, involves pain, and essentially harms oneself.

Nail picking, lip picking, skin picking

Top recommendations include fidget cubes and fidget rings, but picking behaviors may be more about the sensory input of picking itself or the texture aspect.

For example, if you push your cuticle back just enough to create a small, flappy piece, you can rub your fingers over it and stim. That is the feeling you need to replace.

The closest resemblance to this sensory input is the mesh that comes with certain fruits or vegetables.

If you cut a large rectangle out and loosely size it wrapped around the finger, you can hot glue the sides together to create a little “finger pocket”. The finger pocket allows the sensory seeker to safely engage in a stim similar to finger picking, but safely.

Necklace chew fidgets also help autistic people who pick their skin and pull their hair by providing something to chew and wrap around their hands or through their fingers.

Self-injurious hand hitting, digging fingernails into skin, etc.

Tactile spike toys are hard enough to provide the desired sensory input, but soft enough that they won’t actually injure your autistic kid’s hands.

Other stim toys that fulfill sensory needs met by harmful autistic behaviors

Pop-It fidgets help fulfill sensory needs of all kinds, not just the auditory sensory input of popping the fidget itself. All stim toys have potential to fulfill sensory needs — it’s why they’re called stim toys to begin with.

Providing a variety of sensory elements and stim toys helps your autistic child discover what can meet their sensory needs and how to identify what sensory need is a deficit. Stimming looks like so much more than hand flapping and fidgeting.

Stim dancing can look like poetic ballet or attending a rock concert, but provide an outlet for anger, frustrations and stress. Sometimes, stimming looks like going for a walk outside and stepping in a way that guarantees the cracks align with the middle of your shoes.


Izzy Lively is an autistic adult currently navigating autistic burnout while living independently for the second year in a row. She writes about her autistic experience at xoizzy.co.


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