Thursday 30 May 2019

What's potentially behind self-injury coincidental to autism?

"Alexithymia, depression, anxiety and sensory differences may place some autistic individuals at especial risk of self-injury."

Those were some of the conclusions reached in the paper published by Rachel Moseley and colleagues [1] (open-access) following their investigation of an important topic - non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) - in relation to autism "without intellectual disability." Self-injurious behaviour (SIB) is not a pleasant topic to talk about, but is important to quite a few people diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum (see here and see here).

Drawing on data provided by over one hundred adults with autism (autistic adults if you prefer), half of whom were categorised as 'current self-harmers', a quarter of whom were 'historic self-harmers' and a quarter of whom were 'non self-harmers', researchers set to work "to examine alexithymia, mentalising impairments, autistic traits and sensory differences" as possible important variables for NSSI. Alexithymia by the way, is described as "the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self." Researchers utilised several different questionnaires including a tool specifically designed to test for NSSI: The Non-Suicidal Self-Injury Assessment Tool (NSSI-AT), a "comprehensive instrument [that] documents the nature and bodily location of any self-injurious behaviours; their functional utility; their recency, frequency and likelihood of reoccurrence; the age of onset of self-injury; the severity of injuries" among other things. Results were collated and analysed.

Alongside the headline finding that was included in the opening sentence to this post, other interesting details also emerged from the data. So: "Of the 76 current and historic self-harmers, 60 could recall the onset of self-injury at an average age of 15.1 years." Bearing in mind that 15.1 years was an average age of onset, such a finding potentially provides a developmental window when self-harming could maybe be screened for and interventions put in place. Indeed, from what I understand, this is a fairly typical time of onset for self-injury in the general population minus any sweeping generalisations.

Also: "The most common function of NSSI was the regulation of low-energy affective states (depression, dissociation), followed by the regulation of high-energy states such as anger and anxiety." There's an important word in that last sentence - regulation - that needs a lot more inquiry. It implies that self-injury is not just mindless violence against self but might actually serve some sort of purpose. Indeed, other recent papers have also mentioned regulation in the context of self-injury [2] too. Allied to other research suggesting that 'challenging behvaiours' might for example, under some circumstances, also serve a purpose (see here) and how self-injury could present in a variety of ways (see here), and there are leads to follow. Indeed, it could imply that teaching regulatory processes such as those linked to exercise (see here) or the use of meditative techniques (see here) could be worthwhile for some at least.

And just before I leave this topic, I'm minded to bring in another issue that could be investigated in the context of self-injury: interoception and body awareness in the context of autism (see here). Minus any psychobabble, interoception represents "the sense of the physiological condition of the body." It strikes me as possible that a reduced capacity for interoception in relation to autism, as has been talked about in other independent study [3], could be another important variable in the cycle of self-injury and another point of intervention...


[1] Moseley RL. et al. A ‘choice’, an ‘addiction’, a way ‘out of the lost’: exploring self-injury in autistic people without intellectual disability. Molecular Autism. 2019; 10: 18.

[2] Weiner L. et al. A case study of suicidality presenting as a restricted interest in autism spectrum disorder. BMC Psychiatry. 2019; 19: 126.

[3] Fiene L. & Brownlow C. Investigating interoception and body awareness in adults with and without autism spectrum disorder. Autism Res. 2015 Dec;8(6):709-16.


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