Autism and Biting: How to Resolve Biting in Children with Autism

I frequently get asked about autism and biting. Is biting a sign of autism? Is it a part of autism? What can I do to help my child or clients stop biting? Each month within my private online communities, I provide a monthly Q and A call. And this month I tackled the important questions about biting and whether that’s a sign of autism or a part of autism. 

If Your Child is Biting

As a registered nurse and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, I think biting is one of the most serious problem behaviors that I can think of. Biting will get kids thrown out of preschool and daycare. It will get them into restrictive placements, like older kids who bite will sometimes not be able to continue on in public school. They’ll have to go to autism school where professionals wear bite guards. When I think of biting, it is just something that we have to tackle as early as possible. 

Human bites are actually even more serious than animal bites because we have more bacteria in our mouth. If you get a bite as a professional or even as a parent or a sibling, it could lead to the need to see a doctor, get blood tests, potentially go on antibiotics, and you might need stitches. I’ve even seen biting where it caused ligament damage and nerve damage. 

I don’t mean to scare you, but biting is very serious. And even parents who think that the child is just being playful and biting when they get excited versus aggressive bites, biting will still get you thrown out of really important places. 

Autism and Biting

So biting should not be something dismissed as a part of autism. It’s not. Biting can be an indication that kids can’t communicate well, and we need to teach them to communicate. If children with autism also have Hepatitis B or AIDS, for instance, that can be even more dangerous. So we should tackle that quicker than most other behaviors that I can think of. 

I did a really good podcast interview with Dr. Timothy Volmer. He’s an autism expert and researcher. And he specifically talked about biting as a response to pain and stress. He really helped me think about biting. So kids that bite, whether they bite themselves or bite others or bite objects, it could very much indicate that there is some pain or stress that they’re not able to communicate.

Dr. Volmer said that the research is clear that animals like birds and mammals bite themselves or bite objects when they are stressed and/or in pain. Also, if we think back about before anesthesia, think about the old cowboy movies where they bite on a towel during some surgical procedure or some painful event to try to relieve the pain. 

I know for my son, Lucas, he bit people occasionally when he was young and then, when he got to be a teenager, he bit himself at points. And we could really tie that back to having allergy headaches, pain. 

Assess the Whole Picture

So let’s talk about the four step turn autism around approach to tackle biting. Step one is assessment. And when we talk about assessment, we’re not diving in specifically right away to the biting. We’re looking at the whole picture. Age, ability level, communication level. Whether the child has allergies, is on medication, or if they have eating, sleeping, potty training problems. How they communicate.

Can they mand or request for what they want. Can they label things or answer questions? We also look at how they are socially. How are they with imitation, matching, following directions? And then we look at all their problem behaviors. And like I said, we want to really tackle biting as probably our number one problem behavior. But if they’re also gouging their eyes out or running in the street, we have to look at the whole picture and look at all the problem behaviors. 

Then we finally look at biting. When it happens, why it happens. There’s probably a couple of functions. One is they’re in pain, we also need a medical assessment.  Blood draws, ear checks, dental checks. A lot of our kids can’t tell us when they’re in pain

Make A Plan

So finally, we want to really focus in on when the biting happens and when it doesn’t happen. Then step two is making a plan. We want to prioritize the most serious problem behaviors. But we don’t want to forget about the whole picture because we need to spend 95% of our time preventing biting. For instance, we think that happy bites occur when the child gets overly excited, like where they want to wrestle. Or when I carry my toddler like a baby, he sometimes bites my shoulder. Or if you’re still breastfeeding, he bites during breastfeeding. 

I breastfed my typically developing son, Spencer, really late. Past two years of age. And when he would bite, I was told to take him off, put him down, say no, and wait at least 30 seconds before resuming. And that worked. So if you’re carrying a toddler and they’re biting you on the shoulder, put them down. Say no, wait at least 30 seconds. And you may want to stop carrying them like that. 

And if it’s wrestling or something like that, I would stop completely. Think of other fun things like spinning a child in an office chair or rocking them or bouncing them on a ball. You can still do fun things, but if wrestling has been chained with biting, then we need to stop that. 

Part of planning is thinking what do I need to stop or change? I think a lot of parents are trying their best to be kind and gentle. And I’m a very child-friendly approach kind of person. But with biting, you do need to have the child realize that that’s a no. And you don’t have to necessarily say no biting. You could. But when the incident is over and the 30 seconds has passed, we’re not talking about biting. 

We’re not telling my husband or my neighbor about the biting. We’re not saying, “oh, Johnny, you can’t be biting mommy that’s bad.” No, it’s no biting or no firmly and then 30 seconds or a minute passes, then the slate is clear. 

And if we’re talking about biting after that, we are spelling it. Because nine times out of 10, if you are talking about biting, the child knows “I can get mommy’s attention, I can get out of things, I can get things.”

Start making a difference for your child or client with autism or signs of autism through free training!

Attend a FREE Workshop!

How to Prevent Biting

Teaching is the third step of the Turn Autism Around Approach. We’re going to spend 95% of our time on prevention. We’re going to stop the things that lead to biting such as wrestling. But if you want to continue to breastfeed, that’s fine. We just need to have an interruption and no, and then wait a little bit and then resume. Put your child down. Don’t say, “no biting mommy” or “ouch that hurts.” You’re still holding them. And that doesn’t sound like no. It doesn’t sound like there’s a problem. Say “No biting,” put them down and then pick them up. That is an interruption. It’s a consequence. 

Take Data of the Biting

And the fourth step of the Turn Autism Around Approach, which is super important, is taking data. We still track Lucas’s self-biting. We have a physical calendar. I talk about this in my book and on a video blog. 

We have a red pen and we have a pencil. The pencil is for scheduling. The red pen in the is for keeping track of any self-injurious behavior, any aggressive behaviors. Anything like that goes in the calendar. 

Every allergy shot is tracked, any kind of antibiotics supplements. He has some motor tics sometimes that are tracked in red. And then I use this to help the doctor adjust any medication and those sorts of things. So I would highly suggest you keep a calendar.

Also, ABC data is important if you don’t know the function and if these behaviors don’t go away very quickly. The calendar can help you track if the biting is increasing or decreasing over time. [/vc_column_text] If you would like to be a part of my community or learn more about autism and biting, you can always attend a free online workshop at[/vc_column_text]

Start making a difference for your child or client with autism or signs of autism through free training!

Attend a FREE Workshop!


[Transcript Copy]


Download the Transcript