The early development of self-injurious behaviour: Evaluating the role of social reinforcement

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Colleges, School and Institutes


BACKGROUND: The potential role of social reinforcement in the development of self-injury has not yet been subjected to empirical analysis. In this 2-year prospective study, the pattern of social interactions related to the early presentation of self-injury were examined to identify a potential association with an increase in self-injury. METHODS: The self-injurious behaviour and social contact with adults of 16 children with intellectual disability (ID) with self-injury of recent onset were observed at 3-month intervals over 2 years. RESULTS: Increase in self-injury over a 2-year period was positively correlated with a distribution of social contact relative to episodes of self-injury that is consistent with a mutual social reinforcement paradigm. When this paradigm was operative, self-injury was evoked under stable antecedent conditions over time but tended to evoke increasing levels of social interaction. CONCLUSIONS: These results support the hypothesis that increases in the frequency of early self-injury in children with ID may be determined by social reinforcement with implications for early intervention and proactive identification of children at risk for increases in self-injury.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)591-599
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Intellectual Disability Research
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2005


  • social reinforcement, children, self-injurious behaviour, early intervention, intellectual disability