This entry comes to us from Kate. You can find her on her Facebook page Girls Autistic Journey and her blog Girls Autistic Journey. This post was originally written and posted on her blog on March 14, 2018. Thank you, Kate!
The main reason most autistics chew is related to their sensory processing system. It’s very common for autistics to have sensory processing disorder, in which they experience difficulties with their sensory system. Most people only know about five body senses, however there are two more senses these are called the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, which control balance and spatial awareness.
The proprioceptive system forms sensory input that sends messages to the muscles and joints in the body. This then allows us to know where our limbs are in relation to objects and people.
When autistics have difficulties with their proprioceptive system, it can cause difficulties with planning movements and levels of arousal. This difficulty makes it hard for the person to identify where their body parts are and to feel them as well. My daughter has proprioceptive difficulties. She will often say to me “I need to bite something.” This is due to her not getting the correct sensory signals to the muscles and her oral sensory system. Not getting the correct sensory information affects her in several ways. She will not receive pressure in her jaw, which will cause problems with her brain being able to make connections and organize information. She will struggle to keep focused.
The other reason for feeling like chewing is something called sensory overload. This is where the over-stimulation happens. The cause can be environmental or an overwhelming situation. When this happens, autistics become stressed, anxious, and fearful.
Some difficulties that be experienced during sensory overload:
- Irritability, can’t focus
- Avoid being touched, or talked to
- Refuses to participate, won’t respond to people
- Taking themselves away from others
- Covers ears, covers eyes
- Angry outbursts, crying, panic attacks
- Wanting to bite themselves, things or people
Often when this happens, autistics will start to do something called self regulation, which some people call stimming, or stims. This helps to calm and regulate the sensory system.
Here some examples of self regulating behaviors, but stims are very personal to each person:
- Spinning, jumping, running
- Hand flapping, fiddling with hands
- Chewing things, mouthing everything
- Putting fingers in their mouth, biting nails
- Making sounds, shouting, humming
- Moving legs, arms, can’t sit still
This happens when there is a need to regulate the proprioceptive system. By regulating the system, this can bring a feeling of safety, calm, organization, and comfort. Chewing is a common need for many autistics. Addressing this need is so important. How can we safely and productively support this?
This can be achieved through proprioceptive activities. These activities will help to regulate the sensory system.
Proprioceptive regulating activities for adults and children:
- Blowing bubbles
- Blowing whistles
- Suck a thick drink through a straw
- Chew chewing gum, or hard sweets
- Jumping on a trampoline
Lots of these ideas are not mobile, so I was struggling to support and regulate my daughter’s sensory system when out and about. She would bite herself, her clothing, and anything she could get hold of. She was also very vocal, shouting and speaking so loudly, chewing her hair, cracking teeth together and clearly needed to chew. I didn’t want to keep giving her gum or hard sweets, due to long term effect on her teeth. So I did some online investigations around this subject. I found a product called Chewigem to help support her need to chew. Chewigem products are all safe to chew and are non toxic and silicone based. Chewigem products can be washed or even put in the dishwasher.
I love Chewigem as the products are so pretty, stylish and come in such a wide range of colors and designs. There are necklaces, bangles and pendants in the range, not only for children but also Adults.
I want to be clear this is not something that Autistics grow out of, Adults need as much support and understanding as children.