Blow Blow, Ear Ear, Hair.

Blow blow, ear ear, hair.

Everyday, many times an hour, my son will blow on his left forearm, his right forearm, wipe the top of his left ear, his right ear, then run his hand across his hair. Again, again. “Why are you doing that?” It’s a question I’ve asked of him so many times, it’s a question his teacher has asked of me too; why does he keep repeating this odd sequence of actions, what function – if any – does it serve? Should we be trying to stop it? Can we stop it?

He did once tell me why he started doing it, and I tried to address the reasons back then. But now the behaviour has seemingly become a non-functional habit and he says he doesn’t know why he does it anymore, and isn’t even aware that he does it when it happens. He’d told me he started touching his ears to make them flat on top, similarly he wants his hair to be flat. I think he blows on his hands to help dry them off after washing his hands, since he’s quite obsessive about his skin being completely dry. But he dries his arms and hands fine with the towel now, and he understands his ears don’t need to be flatter and won’t go flatter by endless touching, and we changed his hair cut to make it even shorter in length than it already was.

Still. Blow blow, ear ear, hair.

So what am I meant to do, if the behaviour has simply become routine, and doesn’t harm him or anyone else, but makes people stare at him and wonder why he’s doing it? If the behaviour appears to be completely non-functional at this point, but merely ingrained. It’s not as if he even knows he does it now, it doesn’t make him happy or calm, it’s just… done. Over and over.

You already have an answer in mind, most likely. Maybe you’re of the mind-set that it’s harmless, just leave it be, he’s just doing his own thing. Maybe you think it’s setting him apart and harming him in his social relations, and since it serves no obvious ongoing function we should work hard to stamp it out. Maybe you’re undecided, maybe you think it’s nothing even deserving of thought or worry or bother.

As a parent of an autistic child, you are expected and required to analyse the child’s behaviours, constantly. Figure out if the unusual behaviours are harmless or harmful, and whether the harm if it exists breaches some magical threshold of “worthy of intervening.” You have to figure out the function of the behaviour, and then decide whether the behaviour that currently occurs is an appropriate way to meet that functional need, or whether you can or should replace it with another behaviour, or address the underlying cause to extinguish the need that the behaviour meets (if possible). You have to find a way to ask your child what need it meets, and observe regardless to figure out when it’s happening and perhaps the why to go along with it. And even when you’ve done all that – observed, communicated, considered, consulted, experimented with responses and fixes – you’re still going to make a decision that other people are always going to criticise.

Well I decided it’s time he tries to break this blow blow ear ear hair habit, a habit which only started a few months ago but already seems so deeply ingrained in his daily rituals. But for all my careful consideration and communication leading up to this decision, he just won’t stop anyway. He only notices he’s done the behaviour after I tell him he has. So now I’m left wondering whether to escalate my efforts to make him stop, what else to do to make him stop, wondering whether this is a habit that will pass by itself in time or will become part of permanent behavioural repertoire. I just don’t know, and the amount of energy I’ve put into trying to figure this out is almost funny: What a lot of fuss over a blow, a couple of ears and a few imaginary stray hairs.

So I open it up to you: If your child was doing this, many times an hour, everyday, what would you do, and why? Or perhaps you can tell me what unusual habits your child has and what – if anything – you’ve done about it. In the meantime I’ll return to this endless analysis I’ve been trained to do over the past many years: Observe, analyse, problem-solve, observe, (over-)analyse, problem-solve. Maybe that’s my own pointless habitual behaviour now; maybe I should try a little blow blow, ear, ear, hair, for a change.

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27 Responses to Blow Blow, Ear Ear, Hair.

  1. It can help us, when we need to break such habits, to have it shown to us that these habits breakout her people’s concentration and/or are at other people’s expense in other, similar little ways. SHOW us (tell us, too) when and if we are gaining our own comfort at the expense of other people: when other people are having to pay/sacrifice/”take a cut” (non-cin sensually and involuntarily) for our fun or our comfort or whatever. This can allow is to be MOTIVATED to find ways to stop: ways to act that will not be at ANYone’s expense, ours or theirs.

    • Thank you kategladstone. He was doing it just as I read your comment so I decided to try straight-away, letting him know others find it distracting (and confusing). He did listen and looked thoughtful about my answer, so I will try the same tactic again later and reinforce in between. I appreciate the suggestion.

      • Thanks! Please report back on how it goes.

        • Unfortunately it hasn’t reduced the behaviour, and over time the behaviour has gradually evolved into something else; now the focus has shifted to primarily blowing on his arms, and the blowing has become spitting which is unacceptable in many ways. We’re still working on making him stop, but having to work even harder now since the behaviour has taken this turn.

  2. Sidney says:

    Is it a tic? My son sometimes develops tics that ‘evolve’ from a voluntary gesture, or a word he likes. He also has some OCD-like routines. The therapist I talked to said it is a way of creating order in a chaotic world, and the tics could be both a sign of stress as a way of relieving it.

    • That’s a good thought Sidney, though he doesn’t appear to be doing it at stressful times or to relieve stress, for example he will do it while watching TV or playing or listening to people or hopping around happily. It appears to be just something “he does” from simple habit. I’ll keep watching for any patterns between environment and the behaviour though. Thanks for trying to help 🙂

      • Sidney says:

        That’s the thing. I thought that tics only appeared in times of stress, too. But the connection between stress and tics appears to be more complex. My son tics appear at relax moments as well-when he playes games, or even in bed when I read him a story. I read a lot about tics, and although the general consensus seems to be it is a way of stress-relieving by creating some kind of pattern, the tics appear at both moments of anxiety as of relaxation. There seems to be no direct cause and effect, but a more pervasive stress-relieving mechanism. At least, that is my interpretation. I understand your concern, though. I sometimes feel the need to somehow redirect behaviour that I think harms him more in terms of stares and stigma. But then again I am also worried that I then might interfere with some kind of neurological compensation mechanism.

  3. Luci Rose says:

    I have often found going after a short and relatively harmless ritual has made it longer , more involved and often potentially self injurious . But the as the NT mum (of a child with non ASC SEN) / teacher (ASC)/ respite provider (ASC) I’m actually the one who constantly skin picks- so who am I to tell anyone what to do.

    • I’m very open to insights and suggestions Luci, thank you for sharing your view. For what it’s worth we have successfully overcome harmful stim-like behaviours / habits in the past, like him rubbing his head to the point of bald spots and hitting his feet on the wall endlessly, but there are also some we’ve had little success in addressing and are largely resigned to now (such as his “happy dance” which is his longest lasting stim). I just don’t know yet what category this latest behaviour is going to end up in. (Also, good luck with the skin picking, it’s not a behaviour I’m familiar with but it sounds harmful, I hope you’re managing OK.)

  4. mamafog says:

    For a while, every time my daughter dropped something she would pick it up and drop it again and this could continue on and on and often resulted in a meltdown when I had to intervene. I felt like she really needed to reprocess the surprise event of dropping something, so while the advice from the behaviorist was to stop her before she dropped the items a second time, I let her repeat the dropping once and then intervened. It didn’t take long before she would just “redrop” the item one time and then continue on. She still does this occasionally, but most of the time she’ll move right along without needing to.

    I can’t quite stop over-analyzing, wondering at the source. So if I were in your shoes, I’d probably back off from trying to change the behavior. But I’d keep trying to understand it. It sounds like he can explain things to you, has he seen a video of himself doing this? What does he say/do if you copy the behavior? My daughter thinks it is hilarious when we copy her and it will turn into a game, a strange game but I think i helps her become aware of some of the things she does. But she only stops the behaviors when she doesn’t need them anymore.

    Good luck.

    • Thanks mamafog. We have tried showing him what it looks like from the outside and he thinks that’s hilarious and asks us to do it again and again while he laughs away. But afterwards he didn’t seem to reduce how often he was doing it. Maybe we’ll keep at this tactic and see if it makes a difference, thanks for the suggestion. And yes I take your point about the idea that the behaviour might just go when it no longer serves the function of whatever it (may be) serving, but since he was able to tell us why he started and understood the discussion as to why it was unnecessary and not going to achieve what he was doing it for, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a learnt pattern of behaviour that has simply become a habit. (His ears and hair aren’t going to get flatter, he seems to get that point, I hope he gets that point!) Still, I will be watchful and try to find any patterns in when – and perhaps then, why – he does it. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  5. Does he want to stop? I have some OCD-like behaviours that probably had some reason when they started (a way to control a chaotic world when I was stressed) and now don’t really have a purpose. Someone tried to help me stop them, I didn’t want them to. The behaviours weren’t bothering me (although my case is slightly different as what I do is not noticeable most of the time to other people).

    • Sidney says:

      Lechateliersprinciple, I’m curious: why don’t you want to stop the OCD-like behaviours? I’m asking because my son has some strange routines that I would assume are limiting him. Then again I tried to redirect them gently, in order to ‘break the chain’, but he got so frustrated that I’m leaving it be now. I just would like to understand this more. For example, my son needs to go out a room / building the exact same way he got in. I would think this is annoying for him. He regularly says ‘my head tells me to do so’.
      so for you, especially when you say you are award of them, and they don’t serve a purpose anymore (also, how do you know they don’t?), aren’t you bothered by them yourself?

      • Well, I always have to go up flights of stairs in a particular way, but it’s not actually limiting me to do so. I could go up stairs a different way (I no longer have the voice in my head telling me that I have to), but it’s not hurting anyone for me to continue doing things the way I do them, and habits take conscious thought and effort to change, so I’d rather not. I suppose the difference in my case is that it’s not limiting (it takes no extra time and doesn’t take significantly more effort), it just looks a little strange. There’s a lot less incentive for me to change. That said, if your son found his behaviours distressingly limiting, I think he’d change on his own, or ask you for help to change (especially as you’ve shown him you’re willing to help redirect and ‘break the chain’).

    • Lechateliers, he doesn’t appear to have any opinion on whether he wants to stop them or not, or at least he doesn’t become distressed or annoyed when we ask him to stop, he just says he didn’t know he was doing it and if anything is surprised when we point it out. If he was having distress or stress at our attempts to intervene, I would most definitely have been taking that into account in my deliberations on whether and how to intervene.

      • Autism and oughtisms, it does seem like you’re doing a good job of taking his comfort into account in this, but since it’s so much effort for you to correct his behaviour, wouldn’t it be easier to just wait until he wants help rather than correcting something he seems to feel ambivalent about?

  6. Mary says:

    Hi there. First just want to say that I think it’s perfectly natural to be so concerned about this. You know that it’s just a little habit that he does unconsciously and doesn’t harm him or anyone else, but other people see him do it and, like it or not, it changes their reactions to him.

    I think the way to respond to it depends on your son’s particular situation (age, personality, cognitive abilities, etc., etc., etc.) and I just started following your blog so I can’t give you any advice.

    My son is almost seven and he has ASD as well as a mild to moderate intellectual disability. One of his main repetitive behaviours is echolalia, and when he gets going on a roll he simply cannot stop. Yesterday we were waiting for the subway and he kept saying over and over and over “take the next metro!”, “take the next metro!” “take the next metro!” in a really loud voice (metro is what we call the subway in Montreal). In the few minutes we were waiting he must have said it like 40 times. I asked him to whisper it (which he can sometimes, but couldn’t yesterday) and we tried to distract him by asking him questions (which didn’t work). Other people around us were laughing (but not in a mean way–we were all just being good natured about it–his brother and I were joking that we should have counted from the start and made a bet on what number he could get to before the metro came ;-). When the metro finally came and we got on, one lady asked me “OMG, is he always like that!?”.

    Of course there was a time when I was extremely bothered by this echolalia and trying to stop it, but in my case it just can’t be stopped, at least for now, so we have to practice radical acceptance with a side of humour!

    • Thank you so much for sharing and commenting Mary, and welcome to my blog by the way 🙂 My son is 8, and is not intellectually disabled in a strict meaning of that word, though he processes the world in an unexpected way of course. On the echolalia point, he used to be very tied into endless repetition too, and there was a time we wondered whether he’d ever get past that point in communication, but I read a fantastic piece a while back pointing out how echolalia is all part of the growth and evolution of speech and what it said in that piece turned out to be completely true of our son. When I get the chance I’ll see if I can find it for you and will share it, you may find it both interesting and heartening. Either way, I always enjoy hearing about other’s experiences and journeys, and wish you all the best 🙂

    • I found the post I was referring to above, have a read and I would love to hear your reaction to it:

  7. belendakay says:

    My son who has Asperger’s has his little rituals especially when getting dressed. I have noticed that as he has gotten older either the rituals do not seem as extreme or take up as much time as they once did. I tried to intervene when he was younger and in his case it seemed to make him more focused on them. He is 11 now and my thought is that if he’s not hurting anyone or himself, it’s not hurting me.

    • Fair comment belendakay, I wish I could see 3 years from now and have the same reassurance. Unfortunately with my son some behaviours have stuck with him and become more problematic, some we successfully reduced, some we managed to eliminate for the better. The way each autistic person responds to interventions with these types of behaviours can differ so much, not just person to person but also behaviour to behaviour. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. M.J. says:

    Your point about your son not being aware of his behavior is a very interesting one. I don’t think I have ever heard of or seen a person do a multiple step gross motor activity like that and not be aware that they were doing it.

    I don’t doubt what you are saying but still I am a little surprised. I would have thought that a smaller or simpler ritual might be unnoticed but I wouldn’t have thought that one that involves multiple steps and parts of the body like that would be.

    My kids always seem to be aware of their rituals but since I can’t ask them about them I can’t be sure about that. Then again their vestibular system seems to working overtime so maybe their hyper awareness of their body is just another part of their autism.

    Is this a common thing and I just haven’t seen it yet?

    • Hi MJ, I don’t know how common the lack of awareness is, but I have read about it in books and on other blogs over the years. My son used to also be very unaware of his “happy dance” too, until we actively brought it to his attention, and he’ll still be largely unaware that he’s doing that when he’s very excited and carried away in the moment. That stim – like this group of behaviours – also involved multiple movements and body parts. (And aren’t many of us unaware when we do things like click pens and tap our feet, or even chew and spit out nails over and over?) I think the lack of awareness is part of why it’s hard to change or adjust the behaviour; if you’re unaware you’re doing something, it’s that much harder to do something about it or to stop it. Your question is an interesting one though, and I’d be interested to hear from others too on this point. Thanks.

  9. Jaden says:

    I love your insights on this. Very wonderful. Thank for sharing this with us.

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