In part 1, we discussed chewing, mouthing, or eating 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 notice can be overwhelming to someone with heightened sensory systems. Conversely, information that a neurotypical person would easily respond 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 specific 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 unfamiliar with stimming, it is another way of saying someone is engaging in self-stimulatory behavior. Stimming helps people organize themselves and make sense of all the sensory information flooding his/her system.
Actually, it’s something that neurotypical people do too, but to a lesser degree. For example, have you ever doodled on a notepad during a long meeting? Or fidget with something in your hand when you’re feeling nervous? Those are basically tools that you’re using to help yourself stay regulated and focus on a task.
Prioprioception and Pica
In the same way, chewing is a regulation tool for someone overwhelmed by trying to make sense of the input. The input is too much in quantity or intensity for them to deal with. In addition to a need to self-calm, chewing can also indicate proprioception challenges.
Simply put, proprioception refers to one’s awareness of his or her own body. The sense helps us know where we are in space and involves balance, posture, motor planning, and much more ( in-depth explanation of proprioception). If someone’s proprioception is not working properly, it is common for them to seek out deep pressure in various ways, as it helps the body better sense where it is in space.
Chewing is one of the many ways someone may seek this type of input. This should be considered if you see a lot of mouthing and chewing.
Part 3 of this series covers practical tips and tools to help reduce your child’s chewing and/or redirect it to safer alternatives.