mouthing autism


You turn around to see that one of your students has something in their mouth: a pencil. Next, it’s an eraser or a piece of fabric…later, a toy. 

Sound familiar?

If you have students with autism in your class who are constantly putting items in their mouths, they might be displaying sensory-seeking behaviors. Today, we’ll explore oral sensory seeking, symptoms to look out for, and strategies to manage these behaviors. But I must note that an occupational therapist is your go-to person for these challenges. However, if you are part of the classroom team, this article will provide you with some things to consider.

What Is Oral Sensory Seeking?

Oral sensory seeking occurs in children with autism, sensory issues, and other disabilities. A child with this disorder seeks out sensory experiences that are intense, persistent, and potentially harmful.

While it is normal for young children under 2 to explore the world by placing objects in their mouths, it is not usually typical if the behavior continues intensely as they age.  

Some children with autism may seek oral stimulation beyond age 2. They do this to help regulate emotions, ease anxiety, and understand the world around them.  

Common Symptoms of Oral Sensory Seeking

If you have a student in your classroom who portrays one or more of the following behaviors, they may have oral processing issues:

  • Eating, chewing, or mouthing non-edible objects. This can include classroom objects, body parts, or clothing.
  • The uncontrollable need to have items in their mouth. With very little impulse control, the child will attempt to mouth objects at every opportunity. 
  • Oral hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. A child may be overly reactive to (or crave) certain foods, tastes, or textures. It is typical for a child with oral sensory issues to have problems with other senses, such as visual or tactile stimuli. 
  • Inability to concentrate without oral stimuli. A child with oral stimming habits may lose focus when they do not have an object in their mouth. 

Developmental difficulties with emotional understanding, communication, language, and repetitive behaviors can be characteristics of students on the spectrum. While some students with autism experience oral sensing issues, not all will. 

If a child with autism in your classroom demonstrates intense oral fixations, they may also have a sensory processing disorder (SPD). It is best to talk with an occupational therapist since they are the experts in this area.

The good news: you can help your students with similar classroom interventions and sensory-friendly techniques. 

 

Strategies To Manage Sensory-Seeking Behavior In The Classroom

You can help students with intense oral sensory challenges through a variety of methods, such as:

1. Replace Unhealthy Chewing with Healthier Options

Children with oral sensory issues need a healthy outlet to explore the world with their mouths. Allow children to use healthy replacements to stop unhealthy chewing or mouthing.

Children can chew on gum or safe toys explicitly designed for chewing (like a chew tube). Other activities include:

  • Blowing bubbles
  • Swishing water in the mouth
  • Drinking thick and thin liquids through a straw
  • Trying foods with new textures or tastes
  • Blowing on items
  • Brushing teeth
  • Doing facial exercises with the tongue

By setting aside time to explore the world through oral stimuli, you can help children with oral processing issues self-regulate in a healthier way.

2. Get Help From an Occupational Therapist

Using occupational therapy for a child with oral-seeking behaviors may be an appropriate option. You may need special help if a child is constantly eating harmful items, biting or licking others, or posing a threat to themselves or others.

An occupational therapist can help design and implement a therapeutic plan for your student. Sometimes, they can work one-on-one with the child and parents to set goals, develop healthy stimming habits, and establish positive oral stimulation behaviors. 

Therapists can also use techniques like desensitization therapy (alongside parents) to improve a child’s diet and make it more sensory-friendly. 

3. Make Your Classroom Sensory-Friendly

More likely than not, a child with oral sensory-seeking behaviors also has other sensory issues. The best way to help all children with autism in your classroom is to plan safe sensory experiences.

Sensory play can include jumping rope, doing heavy work, pushing and pulling items, using an exercise ball, or playing with dough. 

Allowing children in your classroom to explore the world through all senses will allow them to self-regulate, reduce anxiety levels, stim appropriately, and have better focus. 

Create a way for students to communicate their sensory choices using visuals like our sensory bin communication cards.

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4. Use Visual Schedules and Picture Charts

Children with autism thrive with routine, consistency, and explicit communication. If you have a child in your classroom who struggles with oral sensory seeking, consider making a chart or schedule to help remind them of appropriate behaviors. 

The visual schedule could include when it is appropriate to chew on items and when it is not. You can use visual cues such as green or red cards to indicate when mouthing is allowed.

Additionally, consider creating a picture chart of what is okay and not okay to place in their mouths. For example, you can have pictures of clothing, pencils, and toys crossed out. Then, you can have photos of chew toys, gum, or other approved items listed with a green check mark. 

You could also offer a choice board, like the one included in our sensory bin communication cards resource.

SensoryBinVisualCommunicationCardsSupportsforAutismSpecialEducation 1 4    SensoryBinVisualCommunicationCardsSupportsforAutismSpecialEducation 1 3

 

Remember, all children explore the world by mouthing objects; however, students with oral sensory issues may do so in an unhealthy manner. 

You can utilize strategies to help students do oral sensory exploration safely. Interventions include planning healthy oral exercises and activities, making your classroom sensory-friendly, and using occupational therapy techniques.