Self-injurious behaviour in autistic children: a neuro-developmental theory of social and environmental isolation

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2014 Mar;231(6):979-97. doi: 10.1007/s00213-013-3279-2. Epub 2013 Sep 21.


Rationale: Self-injurious behaviour is not one of the three core symptoms that define autism. However, children on the autism spectrum appear to be particularly vulnerable. Afflicted children typically slap their faces, punch or bang their heads, and bite or pinch themselves. These behaviours can be extremely destructive, and they interfere with normal social and educational activities. However, the neurobiological mechanisms that confer vulnerability in children with autism have not been adequately described.

Objectives: This review explores behavioural and neurobiological characteristics of children with autism that may be relevant for an increased understanding of their vulnerability for self-injurious behaviour.

Methods: Behavioural characteristics that are co-morbid for self-injurious behaviour in children with autism are examined. In addition, the contributions of social and environmental deprivation in self-injurious institutionalized orphans, isolated rhesus macaques, and additional animal models are reviewed.

Results: There is extensive evidence that social and environmental deprivation promotes self-injurious behaviour in both humans (including children with autism) and animal models. Moreover, there are multiple lines of convergent neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and neurochemical data that draw parallels between self-injurious children with autism and environmentally deprived humans and animals.

Conclusions: A hypothesis is presented that describes how the core symptoms of autism make these children particularly vulnerable for self-injurious behaviour. Relevant neurodevelopmental pathology is described in cortical, limbic, and basal ganglia brain regions, and additional research is suggested.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autistic Disorder / complications
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Environment
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / physiopathology
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / psychology*
  • Social Isolation / psychology*