Stop biting behavior in an SPD/ASD kid?
May 13, 2014 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Our young (<6) child has sensory processing issues, and is lashing out physically when she is overwhelmed. We don't want to pull her from a generally beneficial school, and she's already in occupational therapy, what else can we do to stop the aggressive behavior?

(Sorry for the length - trying to be complete)

Let me say first that this kid is AMAZING - funny, sweet, cuddly and cognitively gifted, and thoroughly adored by her parents. She's been reading from an early age, and has no problem expressing herself, or thinking through complex situations to the point where adults often assume she's much older than her real age. The specialists we've seen have waffled back and forth with whether she'd qualify for an autism diagnosis, with phrases like "she's not far from the spectrum, but not clinically on it."

She is not very good at handling extended social interactions, particularly with peer groups. And the sensory processing issues are a clear problem. But here's the main thing- if another kid bumps into her, takes a toy, or even just prevents/delays her from getting what she wants, she can completely lose control. It's like a blind rage. It used to be "just" a tantrum where she threw herself around and flung things or kicked indiscriminately. But now she will hit or bite whomever is closest to her, clearly aiming to do maximum damage. She is unbelievably remorseful once she's calmed down, and even shocked at her own behavior. Sometimes she doesn't seem to remember what happened. She also accepts punishment (e.g. losing privileges) and seems to feel genuinely sad after. It's a literal Jekyll and Hyde situation.

How do we stop the hitting and biting? Occupational therapy wants us to work more on the sensory processing triggers, and I get that, but the biting NEEDS TO STOP NOW. We can't reason with, or even discipline her, when she's in one of the rages, it just heightens her panic level. And she promises resolutely not to do it again when she's calm, but I don't think she can exert that control even though (if?) she wants to.

In addition to gentler methods, we're willing to assign punishments/consequences, and being strict parents in general. We also use strong firm voices to dissuade behavior that seems to be heading to a bad event. (Basically, it's not like we're running around meekly whispering "no no precious")

I'm crying myself to sleep at night, and I'm useless at work - it breaks my heart that this gorgeous human being is being sabotaged by some internal trigger switch. I am devastated every time she asks for friends, and every time the other kids avoid her, but I can't blame them. Please tell me anything that you can think of, we so badly want her to have the chance to be around other people without the constant fear of an explosion.

(One request - please don't offer suggestions that inherently involve aggression themselves. As many of you likely know, shouting at an SPD kid or engaging in corporal punishment is pointless and in our opinion, cruel.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Chewlery for shifting aggression to something she can bite?

Also start in with meditation, both daily in the morning and evening, but during stressful times as well. We cue with "remember your yoga breathing" and walk her through taking a breath and a step back (which is hard in general, but even more so at that age).

Good luck.
posted by tilde at 11:43 AM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you haven't read it already, I recommend "The Explosive Child" by Ross Greene. An excellent, non-punitive approach to helping kids who have difficulties with rigidity and low frustration tolerance.
posted by drlith at 11:49 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

OT folks should definitely have more sensory processing ideas for you. I know chewing gum and having soft distraction-type toys (a kwoosh ball to play with for occupying hands) have helped family with sensory issues.

Another help (that isn't available to you yet, probably) was ADHD meds starting around age 6. It made a huge difference in helping with impulsive behaviors.

Mostly, I feel like your OT folks aren't helping you enough, and I'm wondering if they can ask around in their professional network for more ideas for you. There is a lot of good therapy for sensory processing, and it shouldn't be entirely on you to figure this out in the short term.
posted by ldthomps at 11:51 AM on May 13, 2014

Start a log concerning her diet. My oldest is allergic to raspberries. It is not an obvious allergy in that he doesn't break out in big hives or anything like that but he turns aggressive and awful when he has them. Once I realized the pattern, I simply said "no more sherbet of this type (the only food he liked that had raspberry in it)" and that stopped.

My youngest has similar temper issues. I agree with your position of not being aggressive in the face of this. I spent much of his life trying to make sure he didn't wind up in a gang or jail or something and helping him learn better ways to handle his temper. He is a well adjusted individual now and has less of a temper these days but he was a challenge as a small child (and, yes, bit people and flew into blind rages when he was younger).

Both my sons have sensory issues. They are worse when the kid is not well, hasn't slept enough, isn't eating right, etc. We have gotten real persnickety about tracking which foods correlate to difficult problems springing up and we have worked a lot on health issues. This has been a really big part of why their issues are well controlled these days. Much of the time, I forget they have these big issues and then I occasionally get reminded when my oldest is having a bad day, health-wise, and we walk into someplace noisy and crowded and what not and he just can't cope and I am suddenly reminded of how he was difficult like that all the time when he was younger.

But here's the main thing- if another kid bumps into her, takes a toy, or even just prevents/delays her from getting what she wants, she can completely lose control. It's like a blind rage.

Would it be possible to arrange for the school to arrange for her to have a bit more space to herself? One study found that a lot of people in jail just have a bigger sense of "this space is MY PERSONAL SPACE" and were prone to violence when they felt "their" space was invaded. My oldest does not deal well with strangers being in his space and we just have arranged our lives where this is usually a non-issue but school was one place where he had little to no control over stuff like that (I later homeschooled and that solved a lot of issues).

It might make a difference to do something as simple as move her to one of the desks at the back or side of the room (assuming she is currently in the middle somewhere) so she isn't simply surrounded on all sides by noisy, invasive "strangers." When my kids were growing up, I just worked hard at making sure they each had enough space of their own and that alone does a lot to keep the (sensory) triggers down.
posted by Michele in California at 12:14 PM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's what's helped our daughter, who had similar issues:
  • Chewy jewelry or chew noodles.
  • A sensory seat cushion at school.
  • A place where she can go in her classroom when she starts to feel overwhelmed. Her teacher calls it "Chillville." It's in a corner of the room and my daughter has permission from the teacher to work there whenever she wants.
  • A sensory diet in the morning -- have her bounce on an exercise ball, give her some deep compression hugs, let her blow bubbles in a bowl of water and dish detergent -- your OT should have some ideas.
  • A strip of velcro underneath her desk to rub when she's feeling agitated.

    You may also consider visits to a child psychologist who handles anxiety issues. With my own daughter, anxiety and sensory issues go hand in hand. The psychologist does a lot of role-playing with her, and also has helped her develop her own personal set of coping strategies for when she starts feeling upset.

    When it comes to a child prone to sensory meltdowns, it seems like you can't just tell him/her not to hit. You have to replace that with some other coping behavior. The psychologist has been helpful in developing strategies in this regard.

    My daughter has made incredible strides over the past year and is active in girl scouts, gymnastics, the gifted program, etc. She relates to her peers much better now and she's making new friends. Each day gets a little better, but man, it was SO hard when we were figuring out how to get things under control. MeMail me if you want.

  • posted by Ostara at 12:51 PM on May 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

    Consequences won't help. If you're able to work with her to notice what it feels like when she starts to lose control, and talk about ways to recognize it more quickly and brainstorm what things she can do to keep from lashing out, that would be ideal. (But easier said than done!) If she's able to talk about it/ describe that she's feeling when that happens it might give you some ideas of what to suggest to help her step back from it. This could include mental exercises or something that distracts her in such a way that she can break out of it, like putting a jelly bean in her mouth.

    Other suggestions here, like regular meditation and sensory exercises in the morning, are very good.
    posted by metasarah at 1:59 PM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Please tell me anything that you can think of

    I recommend this book all the time and I suspect nobody every buys it because of the terrible cover, but please, pick up a copy of Carolyn Webster-Stratton's The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2 - 8 Years. It's so very good and so very helpful for people with kids like ours.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 2:33 PM on May 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

    My kid had different causes with the same effect - question, is she only biting her peers or biting adults as well? It's sort of easier if she is biting only her peers because then she still has some element of choice over her emotional outbursts. My kid attacked mostly me when he was going through severe trauma and very distressed without the language to express it.

    What sped up his behavioural change for us was a short cognitive behavioural group program for kids with anger issues. It was six weeks, once or twice a week, and the kids basically role-played different scenarios and had a few very specific guidelines (we don't hit ourselves, we don't hit people and their stuff, we use our voices and hit the safe things - a designated pillow etc). that they repeated a lot and had repeated back to them. It was mostly about telling them that they were good kids who needed to learn to express their big feelings safely.

    An OT won't cover this side, you need a child psychologist for short-term CBT stuff.

    If it helps, my kid is now very gentle, calm and even-tempered. It was just way too much emotion and no way to express it except exploding and causing pain. And when you're a little kid, biting is very satisfying because you are so tiny compared to everyone else and yet you become the most powerful at that moment.
    posted by viggorlijah at 11:51 PM on May 13, 2014

    My child is younger than yours and he is not near the autism spectrum. That said, he's at an age where we are trying to teach emotional control, so some things that have worked for us may help you. I do understand what you mean about when a kid loses control - my son doesn't throw many tantrums any more, but I remember seeing his vacant eyes, where, the lights are on but nobody's home. You can't talk to a kid when he's like that.

    1. Is your child able to articulate emotions? If you haven't already, spend a lot of time discussing emotions and how to articulate them. You can do this as you read books - How does that cat feel? He is mad. Why is he mad? Because Meg stepped on his tail. Point out emotions in your daily life too. "I am happy because you gave me a kiss" "I am frustrated because the road construction is making the traffic slow." "You look sad. Are you sad? Why are you sad?" If your kid can already do this / when she learns, that will help her identify triggers.

    2. My son loves big vocabulary words, and we've picked a few relevant to things we're working on. Ours is "courage", because he's a total scaredy-cat around loud noises and climbers on the playground. He positively beams when I tell him "You used courage!" - much more so than with a simple "good job". Your word could be "restraint". You can tell her, all excited and animated-like, that you guys are going to learn to use restraint, and explain that that means that when you get really, really mad, you [do positive behavior] instead of hitting/biting/what have you. You can also teach her the difference between "mad" and "enraged" (this ties into #1).

    3. My son is marginally responsive to "Don't do X", but to succeed at that he really *really* needs you to tell him exactly what he should do/say instead. I say a lot of things like, "Next time, instead of hitting Will, you could say 'Will, I am MAD that you broke my building.'" You may need advice from the specialists on what your daughter should do instead, and this is where you can incorporate some of the sensory ideas above.

    4. You really have to drill and practice #3. Role play, role play, role play. Randomly in the car, say things like "What should you do next time Will breaks your building?" You want to teach her to take action while she's still in control, before she goes down the path of no return (meltdown). To do that, she needs easy access to the memory of what that action needs to be.

    5. Praise micron sized progress. Maybe she hit the kid, but didn't bite him. Hitting is bad, but biting will get her in a lot more trouble with others. "I'm proud that you didn't bite Will, even though you were really mad. You used restraint. Now next time instead of hitting him, you can try [positive behavior]."

    Your kid is smart, and even if she's near the ASD spectrum, let her know that she can learn how to do this. It might help to tell her that it will be a little harder for her than some other kids, just like other kids might have a harder time reading than she does. Those kids need extra reading practice, and she needs extra practice learning to be mad safely. So you're going to work on it together! Yay!

    Good luck. I hope some of the above will wind up being relevant to your situation.
    posted by telepanda at 7:42 AM on May 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

    My mom is an OT, your therapist really should be able to have tons of ideas on how to help you. If not find a new one, one that works with kids who have sensory processing issues. OT is a huge field and each OT has very different skills; you will need to ask them detailed questions to find this out or ask around.
    posted by klausman at 11:58 AM on May 14, 2014

    I see that you are anonymous and so I would like to offer that you can me-mail me because I am on the Autism Spectrum and I was a biter. I don't know how I can help yet but I would like you to have my support.
    Back in the 1960s an adult had one of my victims bite me back but it was half-hearted and it is not why I stopped. I just stopped. Can' t explain.
    If I were to go back in time and deal with me - I was bored to tears in school and lived for anything different - assemblies, field trips, etc. If someone would have said "Look, biting is anti-social. You need to be social in order to be in a group to get to go to the next assembly. If you bite someone before then you will not be able to go." It is not cruel punishment to restrict one event. It would have worked on me. And it would have been in a manageable time frame for me: don't bite anyone within the next two weeks and I will be able to get out of this soul crushing environment for one day! Yes I'll do it! Then someone should have told me "good! Now don't bite anyone for another month and you will get to go to the museum outing On May 29th." (be exact)
    Also, the more I am learning about Aspergers the more I find that it probably runs in families. Are you or your spouse on the Spectrum making it hard for you to communicate with "authorities"? I have a terrible time with teacher conferences , taking other people to the doctor. In other words, advocating for other people. Communicating with professionals about how someone else should be managed. I was just wondering if you also have this difficulty. Because really, you should be getting more help from teachers, school admins, not to mention the therapist. I just wonder if you are simply not good at that. Something I am looking into right now - I'm going to try to improve my advocacy skills.
    posted by cda at 6:21 PM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

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