The NHS describes self-harm as follows:
‘Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. Self-harm is most often described as a way to express or cope with emotional distress’

Sometimes people can call this behaviour ‘self-injurious‘, which is when the intention to cause harm is not deliberate.

Some examples may include:

  • Biting
  • Hitting
  • Head banging
  • Excessive scratching/picking
  • Cutting
  • Drinking alcohol or eating excessively

Self-harm is something that can be a challenge for anyone, however the National Autistic Society (NAS) highlight the following:

  • autistic people are more likely to self-harm than non-autistic people
  • autistic women are more likely to self-harm than autistic men

What are the reasons?

The reasons and types of self-harm vary from person to person. NAS highlights some of the main reasons that autistic people might self-harm can include:

  • Mental health difficulties such as anxiety, depression and or OCD
  • Social communication and interaction difficulties
  • Sensory difficulties
  • Executive function difficulties- which is the ability to manage and prioritise daily tasks
  • Difficulties recognising, understanding, and regulating emotions
  • Repetitive behaviour- self harming/injuring as an obsession or routine

Self-harm carries significant risks to your physical and emotional wellbeing. If you are self-harming or have thoughts about harming yourself, it is important to seek professional support and treatment as early as possible, such as speaking to your GP.

For more information on what to do, please see our advice on ‘What to do in a mental health emergency or crisis‘ as well as the links at the bottom of this page.

Things you can do

There is not one specific strategy that would work for all autistic people that self-harm, however, here are some possible tools that might help:

  • Complete a diary of the behaviours. What, when and where does it happen? It can help to see any patterns or specific triggers that lead up to the behaviour; for instance is it at a similar time of day? This can help you understand the purpose of the behaviour
  • If you can, try to talk to trusted friends or family members
  • This can be difficult to discuss with people you know so you might prefer to access a support service anonymously or an app such as Calm Harm which provides immediate activities and techniques to help you break the cycle of self-harm
  • Learn strategies to self soothe and manage emotions in non-harmful ways, such as taking time to stop, pause, breathe and to recognise what emotion you are feeling in the moment
  • Seek support for mental health and anxiety
  • NAS suggests building up the gaps between the self-harm behaviours (recognising that all self-harm can be a risk to your physical health)

Further support on Autism Space

Why not take a look at some of the additional information and support we have available across Autism Space?

You may also find the following resources useful:

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