Many people don't understand when they see a child biting on toys, sucking on the sleeves of their shirt or chewing on non-edible objects. While the toddler isn't frowned on for doing this, older children are expected to grow out of it or the parents to stop it. However, many children who do these things have forms of autism and have a reason why they do it.
Anxieties and stimming
Stimming is something a child with autism does to help relieve anxieties by comforting himself. Repetitive behaviors help a child with autism have something familiar that helps him feel good when everything else around him is confusing, frightening or changing. Interestingly, even people without autism have stims such as smoking, tapping their toes or fingernails or playing with their hair. In that way, kids with autism are not very different from those without autism.
Stimming often takes place in the form of sucking or chewing on shirt or sweater sleeves. It's common to see children with autism who have wet shirts. Biting or chewing on toys or other objects such as pencils is also well known in the autism community. Often, easing the anxieties by chewing or biting helps ward off meltdowns that are a result of too much tension or insecurities.
A major problem that a child on the autism spectrum may have is with proper sensory processing. As the brain receives information from the senses, it sends the wrong messages to the rest of the body. A child who bites, chews or sucks on non-edible objects may be feeding a deep, oral desire. It may feel as if he cannot satisfy the need, causing him to continuously have something in his mouth. This child is hyposensitive to oral stimulation. While chewing on a piece of gum may satisfy a need to chew with someone who doesn't have autism, it is not enough for many who have autism. Therefore, the child constantly looks for something that does satisfy or that gives continuous sensation.
In many situations it is not practical to completely stop the child from chewing, biting or sucking on non-edible objects. One solution is to provide objects he is allowed to chew on that won't become damaged or cause injury. Another option is to offer chewy foods such as granola as snacks or as a reward. Allow the child to do something he enjoys, such as swinging, without putting anything in his mouth. If he makes it to the allotted time, he can have a chewy snack as a reward. Carrot or celery sticks, apple pieces, popcorn or dried cereal make great options for satisfying the need to mouth objects. Gradually, the time away from the chewing can be increased to help him stop chewing all together.
While the child with autism may never stop chewing, biting or sucking on non-edible objects, it is possible to substitute the object for something that is safe. Working within the child's abilities may help him stop completely with the right tools and approach. Understanding the reasons behind it will help him feel more secure in his environment.