Oral Sensory Seeking Ideas for Kids with Autism and/or Sensory Processing Issues
Is your child with sensory issues chewing, licking, and biting inappropriately? This is a common behavior among kids with SPD and/or autism, and there are many ways to address it.
The mouth has many sensory receptors: for taste, texture, temperature, wetness and dryness, movement (in the jaw and in the tongue, for instance), and so on. The information from these receptors is sent to the brain, which organizes and processes the information. When sensory processing is dysfunctional, children typically seek or avoid certain sensations around the lips, tongue, and mouth. A child with sensory issues may enjoy sour and chewy Starburst candies or spicy Buffalo wings because he finds these foods stimulating, but oral sensory seeking that involves the unsanitary and even dangerous habits of licking and biting are socially unacceptable and must be addressed. We absolutely must intervene when oral sensory seeking involves licking and biting other children or biting themselves.
A pediatric occupational therapist (OT) or speech/language pathologist (SLP) with the proper training in oral/motor issues can help kids who have oral/motor sensory issues. However, there is much parents and teachers can do to reduce unacceptable oral sensory seeking and redirect it to more socially acceptable sensory input in the mouth.
Offer foods and candy that offer strong sensory input. Chewy and sour or minty snacks and candies as well as foods may meet your oral sensory seeker’s sensory needs. These foods give strong input to proprioception receptors in the mouth and can be helpful in preventing licking and biting. If the child’s system can handle the sugar and artificial colors or flavors, you can give him gum, licorice, gummy bears, Starburst, Tootsie Rolls, or similar candies. Other chewy foods include dried fruit or sugarless gum. Sour foods that can satisfy oral needs include candies such as SweetTarts, but also lemons, limes, and dill pickles. Never, ever force these items on a child. Do not punish a child using strong sensory input in the mouth, or by taking away oral comforts! These items should be used therapeutically and for comfort. If your child has an IEP or 504 plan, spell out the rules for their use.
Offer liquids to be drunk through a straw. A thick smoothie drunk through a small straw, or juice or milk (cow’s milk, soy milk, almond milk, etc.) in a box with a very thin straw, offers sensory input that can help the child or teen who is oral sensory seeking. The thicker the liquid and the thinner the straw, the more resistance.
Keep nutrition and oral health in mind. Giving a juice box or sour gummy candy to a sensory child for oral input has to be considered in the context of overall nutrition and oral health. Constantly bathing the teeth in sugar from candy, juice, or milk will lead to dental caries (cavities) and then you have to deal with unpleasant dental procedures. You also want to avoid giving your child too much sugar and processed foods. There are healthier alternatives, and many health food stores now feature sour healthy hard candies and lollipops that offer a dose of vitamin C, or almond milk in a “juice box” package. Talk to your dentist and nutritionist about your use of oral comforts. Talk to your child’s speech language pathologist (SLP) and occupational therapist (OT) if she has these professionals on her team. The idea is to give her the sensory input she needs while protecting her health and teeth.
Offer chewable jewelry and other items. Chewable items are a wonderful way to get around the problem of foods, snacks, and candies whose ingredients might not be ideal. There are many chewable necklaces and bracelets and pendants on necklaces (including these “chewable dog tags” that are especially discreet) available these days, as well as tubes that you place atop pencils or pens so the child can chew that instead of the writing implement. Talk to your child about what sorts of chewies will work for him. If he avoids the chewable pendant or pencil topper, it could be because it offers too much or too little resistance. Check the Sensory Smarts Shop for options, and no matter where you buy chewies, be sure they are nontoxic.
Address other sensory issues that are affecting your child. Licking, chewing, and biting behaviors often get worse when the child is anxious or frustrated by other sensory challenges. Just as you might find it comforting to chew gum when you are nervous, you may not have a strong desire to do so when you are feeling calm and focused. A good sensory diet can prevent oral sensory seeking behaviors by reducing the child’s sensory discomfort overall. Lessening emotional stress on the child can have a similar effect.
Check whether your child is hungry or has a nutritional deficiency. Sometimes, oral/motor sensory seeking is related to being hungry or having a nutritional deficiency. If the sensory seeking persists, consider getting a nutritional consultation to assess whether the child is getting all his nutritional needs met or if supplementation is required. Giving the child a warm bath with a handful of Epsom salts a few days in a row, which causes the body to absorb some magnesium, seems to reduce oral sensory seeking behaviors in some children and is low-cost, safe, and easy to try. Check with a nutritionist about supplementing with magnesium, zinc, or fish oil, which are very commonly used with sensory seeking children, and consult with your pediatrician as well. Nutritionist Kelly Dorfman’s book, Cure Your Child with Food, is a great resource for sussing out nutritional problems in kids with sensory processing disorder. (Pediatricians often know little about nutrition so you might want to bring in the sources you used when researching nutrition, or have him or her speak to your nutritionist. Please see disclaimer below.)
And as always, use positive language and redirection whenever you can to honor your child’s sensory differences. Their sensory needs are real, and we can do much to meet those needs in a sensory smart way.
Check it out: Extra sour gum, Atomic Fireballs, and other strong candies can be found at OldTimeCandy.com
Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and I wrote an entire chapter on oral sensory seeking in the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues.
Oral sensory seeking, common in children with sensory issues and/or autism, can include a desire to chew, lick, or bite very sour foods.
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