Several teachers asked for ideas for dealing with individuals in their classroom who hit and bite other students and teachers. Hurting others is, of course, unacceptable, so teachers need to take some specific steps to keep others safe, to determine the catalyst for hitting and biting, and to provide a substitute for the harmful behaviors.
1. Out of Reach. Immediate steps must be taken to ensure the safety of other students and teachers. Until the hitting and biting decrease, the student with autism must not be in close personal contact or in arm’s reach of other students. For example, in a traditional classroom, three desks arranged in a “U” shape around the student whose chair is against a wall provides a physical barrier that prevents him from scratching or biting teachers and other students. If a student bites and hits in the school hallways, the potentially harmful student should walk to classes or lunch or recess when the halls are empty rather than walking in line with his classmates. If he is in middle school or high school, he can change classes immediately after the last bell rings so he is not in a crowded hallway at the same time as his peers. The teacher or educational aid can walk to the side and slightly behind the pinching and biting youngster, holding the student’s elbow if he needs guidance.
2. Catalyst. Once steps are taken to keep other people out of harm’s way, we can gather information about the possible catalyst for the hitting and biting behavior. Check with the family and previous teachers to determine if this is a new behavior or long-standing. If the individual is non-verbal, is the hurtful behavior an attempt to communicate something? Does he hit and bite all the time, or just at specific times during the day? For example, some of my friends with autism hit, pinch, or bite during transition from one activity or class to another. Other common catalysts are (1) crowded, noisy situations, (2) hunger or thirst, (3) need to go to the bathroom, (4) physical discomfort such as a headache or tummy ache, and (5) boredom. One of my non-verbal students with autism suddenly started biting people when she started wearing a bra. She was unable to express the discomfort caused by this new piece of clothing that was poorly fitted and tightly binding. Another young student was extremely upset with the unfamiliarity of his classroom when his teacher rearranged and redecorated over spring break. Other students begin hitting and biting when they hear certain frequencies and noises, smell certain foods or paint or hand lotions, or see flashes on a video or computer screen. Sometimes we are unable to discern an external factor that warrants hitting and biting. Although it is difficult to measure internal catalysts, the explosions of hurtful behaviors may be a result of sensory “storms” that occur with some regularity with some youngsters. An articulate high school student with autism told me, “Sometimes everything just seems to break loose in my brain, and it is all I can do to sit quietly and pretend to listen in class.”
In part 2 of this conversation, we will discuss some strategies to decrease hitting and biting. Meanwhile, please feel free to send us your experiences and ideas. Just click on the comments button or send us an e-mail talk@FAQautism.com
NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to talk@FAQautism.com And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com