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J Intellect Disabil Res. 2012 May;56(5):516-26. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2012.01552.x. Epub 2012 Mar 27.

The role of self-injury in the organisation of behaviour.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour, School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, Orange, CA 92868, USA.



Self-injuring acts are among the most dramatic behaviours exhibited by human beings. There is no known single cause and there is no universally agreed upon treatment. Sophisticated sequential and temporal analysis of behaviour has provided alternative descriptions of self-injury that provide new insights into its initiation and maintenance.


Forty hours of observations for each of 32 participants were collected in a contiguous 2-week period. Twenty categories of behavioural and environmental events were recorded electronically that captured the precise time each observation occurred. Temporal behavioural/environmental patterns associated with self-injurious events were revealed with a method (t-patterns; THEME) for detecting non-linear, real-time patterns.


Results indicated that acts of self-injury contributed both to more patterns and to more complex patterns. Moreover, self-injury left its imprint on the organisation of behaviour even when counts of self-injury were expelled from the continuous record.


Behaviour of participants was organised in a more diverse array of patterns when self-injurious behaviour was present. Self-injuring acts may function as singular points, increasing coherence within self-organising patterns of behaviour.

© 2012 The Authors. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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