Head banging, self-injury and aggression in autism

Biomedical treatment improves autism symptoms like head banging, self-injury and aggression:

Head banging in addition to self-injury and aggression are very common autism symptoms.  From a biomedical treatment perspective, these symptoms are considered a sign or symptom of an underlying problem.  Something triggers the need to head bang, hurt others or for children to hurt themselves.  These symptoms are not behaviours.  They are a sign the body needs medical assessment and treatment.

These symptoms are most often related to two medical issues found in autism.  First, alterations in the methylation cycle lead to a change in the balance of brain chemicals in the autistic brain.  Consequently, elevations in certain brain chemicals and lower production of others results in a brain that cannot process sensory information leaving the brain hurting and overwhelmed.

The second reason children engage in these behaviours is because of pain again but the pain is originating from the digestive tract.


Impaired methylation leads to headbanging, self-injury and aggression in autism:

Children with autism are making more of certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that impair their ability to process sensory information.  Glutamate is the biggest culprit in causing sensory issues leading to a child’s brain feels overwhelmed or scrambled.  Brains that can’t effectively process sensory information are brains in pain.  Methylation’s role in managing glutamate is explained below in this video by Dr. Sonya Doherty who is Naturopathic Doctor, Defeat Autism Now Doctor and MAPS doctor.

One example of sensory pain that many people have experience with is a balloon popping close to your head, overwhelming your auditory system with a loud, unexpected sound.  Another example focusing on tactile sensory scrabbling is wearing wool clothing that is itchy, hot and uncomfortable.

For children with autism, the balance of brain chemicals change the way they perceive sensory information, dramatically increasing the effect of sensory stimuli on the brain.  This external assault on their brain is so overwhelming that they will hit their heads to drown out the information being picked up through their senses.  Or they may lash out at others leading to behaviours that look and feel very aggressive but are the result of severe sensory pain.  Noise sensitivity is the number one sensory issue that causes head banging, self-injurious behaviours and aggression.  The world is a minefield for someone who cannot turn off background noise.

Why don’t neurotypical brains suffer from sensory pain?

A more typical brain will tune out things like the HVAC system that hums in your office, protecting the brain from sensory overload.  In autism, there is no turning off these sounds; the fire truck down the street, the hum of traffic, 5 different conversations, typing on the keyboard, the smell of coffee etc.  Theses sounds all bombard the brain causing discomfort and pain.  Headbanging and other forms of self-injury are survival strategies that help children deal with this devastating amount of input.  Recent research has shown that people on the spectrum have more brain activity, even at rest.

Sensory issues cause pain:

Autistic “behaviours” are an attempt to manage this overstimulation.  The pain coming from headbanging is a pain that children can control.  It creates pain, but distracts them from a far more distressing pain that is unrelenting and can’t be escaped.  Children withdraw from the world because of the inability to deal with this massive surplus of data.

Without the ability to interpret the data properly, headbanging and other self-harming behaviours can help give some relief.

Sometimes, hitting, scratching or kicking others helps to manage the frustration of not being able to control sensory bombardment.

 

The role of digestive pain in head banging, self-injury and aggression in autism:

Surveys published in the gastroenterology literature have stated that gastrointestinal problems, such as chronic constipation or diarrhea, occur in 46% to 85% of children with ASDs.”

Journal of Pediatrics – Scott M. Myers, MD

Aggression and self-injurious behaviours are being caused by untreated digestive disorders in autism. Biomedical treatment focuses on assessing and treating medical issues in autism.  The most common medical concern is digestive dysfunction.  Constipation is the number one cause of head banging, self-injury and aggression. There are a number of reasons the gut plays a central role in “autistic” behaviours.

Brain chemicals regulate sensory information:

The first reason is the role the gut plays in producing and regulating brain chemicals.  Ninety percent of the body’s serotonin comes from the digestive tract.  Serotonin is the brain chemical that processed auditory sensory information.  Low levels of serotonin contribute to noise sensitivity.  Digestive concerns like constipation or diarrhea disrupt the production of serotonin which, in turn, negatively impacts the balance of dopamine.  Dopamine is one of the main brain chemicals that helps the brain regulate sensory information.

Gut flora and sensory integration:

Our intestines are home to hundreds of trillions of microbes. This ecosystem is called the microbiome and is made up of yeasts, bacteria and viruses.  The Human Microbiome Project funded by the National Institutes of Health, has shown that the gut flora, the microbiome, governs everything from brain function, development, immunity, autoimmunity, detoxification and inflammation.  The reality is that while we have always thought the brain was in charge, it is whoever is in charge in the gut that governs the body’s biochemistry and physiology. In autism, there are alterations in the microbiome that cause digestive problems in addition to a myriad of changes in cell function.  In the autistic gut, overgrowth of yeast and clostridia causes autistic behaviours.

This is why dietary intervention is so important and so helpful for children with autism.  Yeast and clostridia feed on complex carbohydrates (grains) and flourish when these types of foods are high in the diet.  Removal of complex carbohydrates begins to restore balance in the gut within 3 days!  Changing the microbiome, or ecosystem in the gut, can take months to years but research on the gut-brain axis is clear; feed the good flora and improve brain function.  Probiotics are good bacteria or yeasts and support microbiome repair in combination with dietary intervention that removes grains and dairy.

The role of mitochondrial impairment in gut dysfunction in autism:

The last reason the gut causes sensory issues and, therefore, pain in children with autism is impaired mitochondrial function.  Mitochondria are the energy production factories in our cells.  They produce a molecule called ATP that is the “fuel” for every cell, tissue and organ in the body. Research on autism shows that most autistic children are not able to produce enough energy because their mitochondria are not functioning optimally.  Toxins, SNPs and microbes like clostridia can all cause disruption to mitochondria leading to low levels of ATP. The gut is a long tube, up to 20 ft in adults, and requires ATP to function properly.

Impaired mitochondrial function causes constipation:

Mitochondrial impairment causes slow gut motility contributing to severe constipation.  Remember that constipation is the number one digestive cause of head banging, self-injury and aggression.  This type of constipation is particularly harmful to sensory integration because it is silent.  The intestinal “tube” is weak when ATP levels are low.  The weak tissue stretches easily, leading to the stool building up in the intestinal tube.  This is fecal loading.  The reason it is often a silent form of constipation is because regular bowel movements often occur.

The weak tube fills up with stool to the point that there is no more room.  When children eat, food is added to the start of the intestinal tube.  This pushes the stool that is in the tube forward.  The stool at the end of the tube comes out, looking like a regular bowel movement.  The reason for this is that there is no more space in the “tube”.

 

Summary of causes of head banging, self-injury and aggression in autism:

Pain is the cause of head banging, self-injury and aggression.  Medical assessment can identify why children are in pain.  The most common medical causes of pain in autism are sensory issues and digestive issues.  Biomedical treatment addresses sensory and digestive pain using treatments like dietary intervention and methyl B12 injections.  Biomedical intervention improves quality of life by treating medical issues in autism.  These untreated conditions cause pain which certainly reduces quality of life while also negatively impacting development.