Why Chewing on Things is Not Necessarily a Sign of Autism

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Why Chewing on Things is Not Necessarily a Sign of Autism

If your child is like mine, and chews on almost everything you might be wondering what that means. Is chewing on things a sign of autism? Or is it normal child development? Or is it a sign of something else?

If you have never heard of Sensory processing disorder you may be surprised to hear that chewing on items is a sign of SPD. Many people who have autism also exhibit signs of SPD, and having sensory processing disorder can be a sign of autism, but the reverse logic is not true. Chewing on things does not necessarily equal autism.

Why is my child constantly chewing on everything?

Oral sensory stimulation is a very calming sensory input. It starts very young as an infant. Many infants like to nurse or bottle feed to sleep. And later such on a pacifier, thumb or other objects to self-soothe and regulate.

As children get older they tend to decrease the need to suck to self-regulate, but for many, the need continues beyond an age-appropriate developmental stage. At this point, it may be a sign of an intense sensory need and a sensory processing disorder.

Is chewing on things a sensory issue?

Many times yes! Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. This can result in a variety of symptoms, including sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors, difficulty with social interactions, and challenges with motor coordination and body awareness. Learn more about sensory processing disorder. (link)

One of the ways that sensory processing difficulties can manifest is through oral sensory needs. Oral sensory needs refer to the need for sensory input through the mouth, such as chewing, biting, or sucking. Some individuals may seek out oral sensory input as a way of regulating their emotions or managing stress, while others may avoid certain textures or tastes due to sensory sensitivities.

Sensory stimulation is a crucial component of regulating emotions, behavior, and body awareness. When individuals receive appropriate sensory input, it can help them feel grounded, focused, and more connected to their surroundings. However, when there is a mismatch between the sensory input they receive and what their body needs, it can lead to sensory overload, stress, and anxiety. This is when it is important to develop a sensory diet. See below for more information on sensory diets.

Is chewing on things a sign of autism: boy chewing on toy

Is chewing on things a sign of autism?

Since chewing on items is a sign of sensory processing disorder. It can also be a sign of autism but it does not MEAN a child has autism.

Many autistic people and individuals with special needs engage in repetitive oral behaviors such as chewing, biting, or sucking on objects. This behavior, known as oral stimming or self-stimulatory behavior, can serve a variety of functions, including regulating sensory input, managing stress and anxiety, and providing a source of comfort.

Oral sensory input can be especially helpful for individuals who have difficulty processing other types of sensory input. Chewing, biting, or sucking on objects can provide a calming sensation and help individuals regulate their sensory needs. It can also be a way for individuals to manage stress and anxiety in overwhelming situations.

Why would I want to stop my child from chewing?

Self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming, is a common feature of autism and other developmental disabilities. Stimming refers to repetitive movements or behaviors that individuals engage in to regulate their sensory needs and manage stress and anxiety.

Oral stimming, such as chewing or biting on objects, is a form of self-stimulatory behavior that can serve a positive function in regulating sensory input. However, there is a difference between healthy oral stimming and problem behavior that can lead to injury or harm.

Healthy oral stimming can provide a source of comfort and help individuals regulate their sensory needs. It is typically done in a controlled manner and does not interfere with daily activities or cause harm to the individual or others.

Problem behavior, on the other hand, can be disruptive, dangerous, or harmful. It may involve aggressive or self-injurious behaviors, such as biting oneself or others. These behaviors can be a sign of sensory overload, frustration, or other underlying issues that need to be addressed.

It can be challenging for parents and caregivers to differentiate between healthy oral stimming and problem behavior. One way to identify when oral behavior is a concern is to look for patterns of behavior that are disruptive or harmful. If the behavior is interfering with daily activities, causing harm to the individual or others, or is a significant departure from typical behavior, it may be a cause for concern.

If parents or caregivers have concerns about a child's oral behavior, it is essential to seek professional help from a pediatric occupational therapist or healthcare provider. These professionals can provide guidance on identifying when oral behavior is a concern and developing strategies for addressing the behavior.

What other issues can chewing on objects cause?

Excessive chewing behavior can lead to a range of medical and dental issues, particularly if the individual is chewing on non-food objects. Chewing on hard or sharp objects such as pencils, pen caps, or small toys can cause tooth damage, cuts to the inside of the mouth, or even lead to choking or ingestion of harmful objects.

It is important for parents and caregivers to identify potential choking hazards in the environment, such as small items or loose parts, and to supervise individuals with oral sensory needs during chewing activities. Additionally, individuals who engage in excessive chewing behavior may be at risk for developing oral sensitivities or feeding problems.

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Healthcare providers and pediatric occupational therapists can play a key role in identifying and addressing these issues. They can provide guidance on creating a sensory diet that meets the individual's oral sensory needs, recommend safe and appropriate oral sensory tools, and address any underlying medical or developmental issues that may be contributing to the behavior. Additionally, they can help identify any dental issues or other health concerns that may be related to excessive chewing behavior, and provide referrals as needed for further evaluation or treatment.

When does chewing on things become an issue?

Many parents start looking for answers when chewing becomes destructive. In my case, it was when my child chewed the feet off a friend's princess doll and holes through her shirt sleeves.

Is chewing on things a sign of autism: girl chewing on pacifier

How can I help my child with sensory strategies and a sensory diet?

It is important to figure out WHY your child is chewing before you can help your child. If your child is chewing because of a sensory need, and the behavior is being destructive, and there is a need to replace the item they are chewing on, you must consider what the child is chewing on.

Too many times I hear of parents wanting to decrease chewing on sleeves and offering the child a chew necklace. But chewing on fabric is a very different feeling than chewing on a chew necklace.

A sensory diet is a personalized plan that includes a variety of sensory activities and input to help an individual regulate their sensory needs and manage challenging or overwhelming situations. Oral sensory input, such as chewing on a sensory chew toy or crunchy food, can be an important component of a sensory diet for individuals with oral sensory needs. By providing a range of sensory input throughout the day, individuals can feel more regulated and better able to manage their sensory challenges.

It is important to provide individuals with a variety of sensory input to meet their oral sensory needs. This can include safe and appropriate oral sensory tools such as chewie necklaces, pencil toppers, or textured oral toys. These tools can provide a safe and socially acceptable outlet for oral sensory seeking behaviors and can help individuals regulate their sensory needs.

Sensory chew toys and other oral sensory tools can serve as a safe outlet for excessive chewing. These tools are designed to provide oral sensory input in a controlled and safe manner.

Examples of sensory chew toys include chewable jewelry, chewie necklaces, pencil toppers, and textured chew toys. These tools can be used as a replacement for non-food items that individuals may chew on, such as shirt collars or sleeves.

Chewing gum is one of the most age appropriate items for those who like to chew for emotional and sensory regulation to use.

Is chewing on things a sign of autism: chewing gum

It is important to work with a pediatric occupational therapist to develop a sensory diet that meets the individual's specific sensory needs and addresses any underlying medical or developmental issues. By providing a variety of healthy alternatives and sensory input, individuals can learn to self-regulate and manage their sensory challenges in a positive and effective way.

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