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SELF-MUTILATION AND AUTISM:
FINDING CAUSES & FIXING EFFECTS

By Svea Gold

(Names of the children are altered.)


I think I must have turned deathly pale when she finally allowed me to see her arms. They were covered with long slashes, some scabbed over, some still oozing blood. I hoped she did not notice, because I did not want to give her the enforcement of showing shock. As calmly as I could muster, I asked why she did it. "It calms me," she answered. "Well," I said gently: "This means you have no feeling in your arms or you could not do it. It would hurt too much!"

Janet was 17 years old. A few months away from graduation, she was about to be kicked out of school. There was one last chance for her: an education program set up for delinquent kids by Alen Bell. He was a probation officer at Lane County, Oregon, who tried to help juvenile delinquents before they were actually sent to jail - and who never gave up on a child.

I was then running a neuro-developmental program for him. When they first brought her to me to be given a functional neurological screening, she had refused to let me pull up her sleeves, which was necessary for one of the tests. Now I knew the reason. What testing she did allow me to do showed her to be very poorly coordinated. Her entire profile was that of a person with a retained Moro reflex. When I made a copy of the "typical behavior profile" of the child with a retained Moro reflex. and showed this to her mother, the woman said: "That´s my girl, from early on!" Such children are terribly sensitive to almost every loud noise, bright light, and smells. They tend to have motion sickness and tire quickly under fluorescent lights. She showed all the behavior problems that are the result of living in a world that is so inhospitable to them.

At first she would not work with me, though she agreed to do some of the exercises at home and faithfully came to the academic program that was offered at the Juvenile Education Center. The tutors there told me that she wrote beautiful poetry ­ was very smart, but they were very afraid that she was suicidal. What clued them to that, was that, no matter what the weather was, wind, rain or even snow Janet came without a coat, or even a sweater. Finally with the urging of one of her tutors, and only when the tutor agreed to come along, did she let me to actually work with her five days of the week, as we did with the other teenagers.

Now that I had seen her bleeding arms, it made sense that she never wore a coat. The same lack of sensation in her arms, also gave her little differentiation between hot or cold. Just as her pupils did not react to light when I shone a light into them it was a sign of some damage or lack of development in the brainstem. All these symptoms are a sign of damage the same area.

The neurodevelopmental program we did with the teens was under court order. It was not aimed at a symptom, but at making new connections in the brain in those areas that originated the symptoms. In this case ­ and several others we saw ­ it was medulla, pons and midbrain. When I shone a light into Janet´s eyes, her pupils did not close in reaction to light, and so the full impact of light reached her retina and in pain she almost went through the back of her chair. When I touched her face, she pulled away as if I had struck her. While she was hypersensitive in some areas, she had no sensation in others.

We now went ahead with the regular routine that I did with most of the other kids. It starts with the child lying on the floor in somewhat of a fetal position, eyes closed. The child then slowly moves an arm above the head, making fetal movements with the hands. Between each movement, the therapist touches five different parts of her body or face and ask the child to count each touch. While this sound absolutely weird ­ with my teenagers we actually called it "The Weird Stuff" ­ the touch gives sensory input. (Doing this implies enormous trust from the child, and we always had two people in the room to protect the child and also keep the therapist from being accused of touching anyone inappropriately.) Research shows that as the child waits for each touch, not knowing where and when it occurs, the brain shuts down during the wait and then comes awake as the touch registers. This constant shutting down and waking up creates nerve growth factors that allow new connections to be made at a faster than normal rate.

Sure enough, if we touched Janet´s arms, she not only could not tell just where they were touched, but even that they were being touched at all. She could feel every other place on her body. If we touched her face, however, she again reacted with complete withdrawal. This withdrawal was the kind of reaction that Sally Goddard, author of Reflexes, Learning and Behavior, describes as happening in utero after the first few weeks. This is known as a withdrawal reflex - the "Fear Paralysis Reflex." I had never seen this before, and while I often see twitching and grimacing, yawning or movement of the lips when I do this prenatal stimulation, I have never seen it that strong a reaction again.

Now, in his work with autistic children, Carl Delacato (The Ultimate Stranger, the Autistic Child.) slowly and gently desensitizes hypersensitivities, in whichever area they appear. So, while I was following the typical routine of the neuro-developmental program, to ease the hypersensitivity of her face, I gently stroked her from above the eyebrows into the scalp, from underneath the eyes to beneath the chin and gently over the earlobes into the scalp.

It took three weeks and she no longer reacted adversely to the stroking.

It also took three weeks until one of her eyes closed to the light we shone into them ­ it´s a technique called pleoptics. By the time ­ another three weeks later ­ when we were able to arrange a visit to an optometrist, both eyes closed to light quickly and tightly.

As part of the program, which includes vestibular stimulation, creeping and crawling and later walking and establishing dominance, we use a technique called "joint compression." We gently stimulate the receptors between each joint by pushing, pulling and twisting each one. Many children have no idea where their body is when they are still and so relying on information from their muscles instead, have to move constantly or they feel lost in space.

For Janet, after her wounds were healed, we added massive further stimulation. We brushed her arms with a rough brush, stroked it lightly with a feather duster, and used hot and cold, and other ways to try to get the brain to become aware that she had an arm there. When Janet brought a friend with her to show what we were doing, I constantly had to explain, that when I slapped her arms with my fingers, I was not hurting her. Finally, after about three weeks, when I slapped her the skin reddened, and we showed Janet, that her body was beginning to be aware that I had hit her, even if she did not feel it yet!

It took another two months and Janet was able to feel where we had touched her arms when she was in the prenatal position and we asked her to count the touches.. She no longer cut herself!

Her behavior in school improved so much that the Vice Principal of her school came to see what it was that we had done to change this girl. Amazingly enough, Janet gave permission to let her watch! We don´t know what had happened, but after about four months on the program, Janet ran away. Even her family had no idea where she was and so we could not finish the developmental program. I ran into her mother a few years later. Janet had gone to get her GED and passed it. She had a job. Unfortunately she got involved with drugs, but then went into rehab. The story on her life is not yet finished.

I asked the mother to tell Janet that I cared about her and that she had taught me a great deal. While we already had done trigeminal stimulation with all our kids, we started using the stroking during the prenatal movements with all of our kids ­ and they made greater strides. Stroking stimulates all the cranial nerves that are parasympathetic and connect with the vagus nerve in the brainstem. This pulls the child out of "Fight or Flight" and allows the heart to slow down, digestion to take place, the adrenals to relax.

The experience with Janet proved again what I had discovered many years ago: When Carl Delacato first wrote The Ultimate Stranger, the Autistic Child I realized that even children who are in no way autistic could have sensory distortions. At the time I was a librarian, but how could I hand parents a book that might imply their child had the dreaded label ´autistic"? To fill the need to spread Delacato´s information "If Kids Just Came with Instruction Sheets!!" was written with the help five consultants in different areas of child development. For further information on sensory distortions that can lead to seemingly self-abusive behavior, Delacato´s book is a goldmine. His book is an absolute must for anyone trying to find answers for children who self-mutilate. Such behavior can have many reasons and a child who self-mutilates, may simply be trying to get information into his brain from an area that is numb. Just think of how we poke at our cheek after the dentist has numbed it with Novocain. Each case is different and each such child is entitled to a thorough neurological evaluation, so that help can be found.

© Copyright 2003 Svea Gold. All Rights Reserved.

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