Some kids with autism have pica, or the craving for inedible objects. They may eat paper, dirt, rocks, tree bark, or even things like paper clips and staples. Pica may be the result of a nutritional deficiency, often iron or zinc.
While sometimes kids with autism crave inedible objects because of a nutritional issue, it may also fulfill a sensory need. Some kids may like the crunch of certain objects in their mouth, or the texture of certain objects. Regardless of the reason, eating and chewing these objects can be dangerous and unhealthy. There are some ways to substitute the eating of objects with other behaviors.
What to Do if Your Child With Autism Has Pica
- Go to a healthcare practitioner: this should be the first mode of action. A simple blood test will be able to tell you if there is a vitamin and mineral deficiency that your child is trying to compensate for.
- Get a chewy tube: These are made to be chewed on and can keep your child’s mouth occupied. If your child is chewing on this designated chewing toy, they won’t have the opportunity to stick other inedible objects in their mouth. It can also be useful for those kids who bite when frustrated or chew on their clothing. Chewy tubes can be put on a string to be worn around the child’s neck so they always have it available.
- Try Chewelry: For girls, chewy jewelry can help to look cute while offering that appropriate chewing outlet.
- Cut gluten: This may be helpful for children who have difficulty with digestion (ie. Lots of gas, loose stools or diarrhea, fatigue, possible a low appetite). Gluten is the protein found in wheat and is thought, in Chinese Medicine, to “clog” up the digestive process.
- Cut milk: In a similar way to gluten, milk can also “clog” up the digestive process and weaken an already sluggish digestive system. Because it is difficult to digest for some, a child’s digestive system is not breaking down and absorbing nutrients like it should.
- Add nutritionally rich foods to diet: Steamed vegetables, fruit in moderation, and whole grains and legumes will help to assure that your child is getting enough nutrients.
- See an acupuncturist: Acupuncture can help children with digestive weakness absorb more nutrients from their food by regulating the appetite, digestive enzymes, and the function of the large and small intestines. Children inherently have a weak digestive system (in comparison to adults), which is especially true for kids with autism. Herbal formulas may help regulate digestion as well as acupuncture.
On a side note, make sure that you are safe when fishing an object out of a child’s mouth. Don’t stick your fingers in their mouth (you may push it down their throat and/or get bit). I have had good results with squeezing the child’s cheeks with one hand while leaning the child forward and spits out the object. This assures that you will have all your fingers intact and the child won’t be choking on objects or pooping them out.