Babies and toddlers constantly put things in their mouths. But when the behavior continues in preschool years and beyond, you might wonder if you are dealing with a neurodevelopmental disorder or if it’s just a more extended stage your child is going through.
Many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory processing disorder have an oral fixation. This might result in chewing on random and harmful objects or clothing. Managing chewing behavior can be challenging, and while it can’t be stopped, it can be managed more healthily.
If you have a child who chews on everything, you might be dealing with oral sensitivities. These oral sensitivities are also known as oral stimming, which is a way for an autistic child to regulate emotions or deal with overstimulation.
So, what can you do for a child with an oral fixation? Taking steps to help your little one deal with their oral fixation will limit negative repetitive behavior and reduce the effects. This article will discuss what an oral fixation is and methods to better manage this stimming behavior.
Understanding the Need to Chew
Many children and adults with autism chew because they are anxious, overstimulated by the outside world, or boredom. The impulse for oral stimulation is involuntary, and an autistic person might do it without realizing they’ve been chewing on a hoodie string for a few minutes.
Oral stimming is usually a self-soothing, repetitive behavior. The heavy sensory input given by chewing on objects helps calm an overstimulated nervous system. However, it needs to be appropriately directed to become a healthy behavior.
If you don’t know whether your child is a sensory seeker or not, here are some signs:
- Enjoying potent smells
- Seeking visual stimulation, such as being overly excited by watching a spinning fan
- Struggling to stay still or keeping their hands to themselves
When Does Chewing Become a Problem?
While oral stimming can be good sometimes, it can also cause problems. Some children with autism might chew on items that are not safe, such as items they can choke on. Everything is a potential chewable object, so constant supervision is needed because of the following:
- Objects that can cause choking
- Small inanimate objects that can be swallowed and cause health issues
- Hard objects that can damage teeth
In addition, aside from the apparent dangers, oral fixations can cause unwanted embarrassment. Children who chew on their clothes might get stuck with a wet shirt in public. While some don’t get embarrassed, other children will point out, making the autistic child feel self-conscious.
It’s important to remember that some kids take longer to move away from oral behaviors, but it’s something you’ll want to monitor.
What Is Oral Fixation?
Oral fixation often falls under the “stimming” category. Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior that involves repetitive body movements or repetitive movement of objects. This behavior is common in autistic individuals or those with developmental disabilities. However, it can be a regular part of child development, or children with anxiety can experience it.
Oral fixation is a type of stimming. Other types can include visual, auditory, tactile, etc.
What Does Oral Fixation Look Like?
An autistic person who stims always has an object in their mouth. It might look like baby behavior, exploring things with their mouth to learn about said objects, but this type of behavior doesn’t stop here.
It can develop into chewing behavior that looks like this:
- Teeth grinding
- Thumb sucking
- Nail biting
- Difficulty weaning a child with a pacifier or bottle
- Licking objects
- Chewing on fingernails or inside of cheeks
- Excessive chewing on pencils, clothing, or non-food items
Causes of Stimming
Stimming provides comfort or enjoyment to autistic children. They might vary in intensity and type—they might even occur due to various emotions. Adults with autism may occasionally stim in response to stress, fear, anxiety, happiness, or boredom.
Can Stimming Be Controlled?
While stimming doesn’t necessarily need to be controlled, you might need to answer these questions before determining whether it causes a problem or not:
- Is stimming disruptive at school?
- Has stimming caused social isolation?
- Is stimming destructive or dangerous?
- Does stimming affect the ability to learn?
- Does stimming cause problems for the family?
If your child is in danger of self-harm, then contact your doctor. Otherwise, it’s better to manage the behavior rather than control it, especially when working with children.
Tips for Managing This Behavior
When dealing with an oral fixation, it’s best to redirect this behavior toward the appropriate items. You can work with an occupational therapist to point you toward the right items, such as:
- Using appropriate chewy toys
- Chewing gum
- Sucking thick liquid through a straw
We’ll get into the toys later. Here are five strategies you can use to manage oral stimming.
Frequently Inspect Household Objects
You might not notice it, but many objects around the house are chewed on. Sometimes, the object becomes damaged from excessive chewing. It’s important to inspect household objects frequently and see if there are any objects your child is chewing on without your knowledge.
Offer Chewy Snacks
Provide your child with healthy oral sensory sensations by offering chewy snacks. This will satisfy your child’s chewing cravings without harming them. Depending on your child’s needs and favorite items, the food can be crunchy or chewy.
You can try the following:
- Veggie chips
- Fruit snacks
- Sliced apples
- Dried cereal
- Baby carrots
- Veggie chips
Discover Healthy Snacks for Children with Autism.
Try Chewable Jewelry
Chewable jewelry might come in the form of necklaces, bracelets, or even pencil toppers. This way, they might manage oral sensory needs. They are safe objects, durable, and an accessible alternative to chewing on objects a child shouldn’t. In addition, they come in different designs, such as dog tags or shark teeth.
Here are some items you can try:
Since oral stimming cannot be stopped, it’s best to use redirection. If your child begins to chew on their shirt, find an object that’s acceptable to chew on. Redirect that behavior to the chewable jewelry. Explain to your child that “shirts are not for chewing” and hand him the object they should redirect their attention to.
The redirection will let your child know that chewing on specific objects is not ok, but when chewing on the proper object is acceptable oral stimming behavior. It will allow children to be themselves while eliminating damage to everyday objects.
Offer Drinks with Straws
Offering drinks with a straw doesn’t provide a chewing sensation but does fulfill the oral sensory need some children might crave. The thicker the drink or smaller the straw, the better. That’s why milk or juice boxes are great for added resistance.
Veggie or fruit smoothies are a healthy alternative, but make sure your child drinks the smoothie with a straw.
The Importance of Chew Toys
The goal of chew toys is to provide sensory stimulation for autistic children. Sensory chew toys are hand-held objects made with safe materials, such as fabric or non-toxic silicone. But they come in various textures; some are smooth, while others have ridges. Luckily, you can find plenty of options on the market—and they are easy to clean. It’s essential to know your child’s preferences: your child might love some, while they might avoid another.
It’s important to identify what your child likes and find the best toy for them through trial and error. If you are looking for chew toys, here are some excellent options:
How to Choose the Appropriate Chew Toy
Choosing a suitable chew toy for your child can be challenging. Before you purchase the new toy, ask yourself:
- What textures does your child prefer? Do they chew on fabrics or a favorite toy? Consider the material before buying a toy.
- When does your child chew? Does your child suck on items or chew at the back of their mouth? Knowing where your child chews can help you choose the best option. Also, try to determine how hard your child bites on the toy.
This might help determine whether your child likes a softer or harder toy. Furthermore, you might want to consider a toy that doesn’t attract attention. Some children might be aware of their classmates, while others don’t care what other children might think. If you can’t decide, get one-on-one with your child and figure out the best option.
Other tips for choosing a chew toy:
- Avoid cheap alternatives. These chew toys are often made with single-use plastics that usually contain BPA. BPA is a chemical that has potential endocrine-disrupting properties, so that it might mimic or interfere with your child’s hormones. Opt for toys that are designed for children.
- Clean the toys often. It’s important to schedule the cleaning of the toy. Remember to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.
- Use longer toys (I, P, or X) if your child chews at the back of their mouth. On the other hand, those who prefer softer toys might like rounder chew toys.
Chewing is a form of oral stimming that might be frustrating for a parent. It’s frustrating to keep telling your child not to chew on that object, even if you know they can’t help themselves.
You must understand that oral stimming is not something that can be stopped. However, you can take steps to manage and take safety precautions.