In part 1, we discussed chewing, mouthing, or eating of inedible objects also known as Pica Syndrome and possible underlying nutritional deficiencies that can contribute to these behaviors. Read part 1 here.
Another possible cause of Pica – Sensory issues
Challenges with processing and responding to sensory input are extremely common among people with autism. When it comes to chewing/mouthing inedible objects, there are a number of ways in which sensory issues can come into play. Someone who engages in chewing activities may do so for one reason or due to a combination of reasons.
When someone’s sensory processing is impacted, the way in which they perceive the world can be significantly affected. Things that neurotypical people barely even notice can be completely overwhelming to someone whose sensory systems are heightened. On the flip side, information that a neurotypical person would easily respond and react to may go unnoticed by someone whose sensory systems are under responsive. When it comes to excessive chewing, the latter is usually the case.
Chewing to stim
To break it down further, let’s look at a couple of specific types of sensory issues that may lead to a need to chew. In some instances, chewing can be caused by a need to stim. If you’re not familiar with the term stimming, it is another way of saying that someone is engaging in self-stimulatory behavior. Stimming helps a person to organize themselves and make sense of all of the sensory information that is flooding his/her system.
Actually, it’s something that neurotypical people do too, but to a lesser degree. For example, have you ever found yourself doodling on a notepad during a long meeting or fidgeting with something in your hand when you’re feeling nervous? Those are basically tools that you’re using to help yourself stay regulated to be able to focus on the task at hand.
Prioprioception and Pica
Much in the same way, chewing serves as a regulation tool for someone who is feeling overwhelmed by trying to make sense of input that is too much in quantity or intensity for them to deal with. In addition to a need to self-calm, chewing can also be indicative of challenges with proprioception.
Simply put, proprioception refers to one’s awareness of his or her own body. It is the sense that helps us to know where we are in space and is involved in balance, posture, motor planning, and much more ( in-depth explanation of proprioception). If someone’s proprioception is not working properly, it is very common for them to seek out deep pressure in a variety of ways, as it helps the body to have a better sense of where it is in space.
Chewing is just one of the many ways that someone may seek this type of input, so if you are seeing a lot of mouthing/chewing, this is something that should be considered.
Part 3 of this series covers practical tips and tools you can use to help reduce your child’s chewing and/or redirect it to safer alternatives.
If you have questions on this or other parenting questions related to autism you can directly connect and have a conversation with Jennifer Rainey on Autism’Tude.