Should You Use Chew Toys for Kids with Autism?
Autism and Chewing
When my son Lucas was a preschooler, after he was diagnosed with autism and right before he was three years of age, he used to chew on everything, including his shirt sleeves, shirt collars, toys, and markers. I’ve had many clients as a behavior analyst that chewed on items as well. Now that I run online autism courses, I’ve had many parents of toddlers and preschoolers often post about their kid’s mouthing and chewing items. They want to know how to stop this from happening.
We used to give Lucas a chewy tube, which in hindsight was not a good idea. But many professionals still recommend chew toys, chew necklaces, or chewy tubes to give a child throughout the day, or to redirect to these chew toys once a child starts chewing on something he’s not supposed to,
But when a child is mouthing or chewing on clothing or objects, in many cases I think it’s a medical issue. It may be caused by a zinc or magnesium deficiency or high levels of copper or lead in the child’s bloodstream. These nutritional imbalances can also lead to picky eating and developmental delays in learning language.
So, instead of recommending chew toys, I recommend assessing a child’s chewing and making an appointment with the child’s physician who can order blood work. Or you might want to consider going to any nutritionist, maybe one that specializes in autism who might be able to help you with identifying a nutritional deficiency that’s leading to all of this chewing.
The Dangers of Chewing
There are plenty of dangers involved with chewing. I’ve done video blogs on PICA and mouthing of things. PICA is actually ingesting non-edible objects. Which can be very dangerous, especially if they’re ingesting mulch or sharp objects like nails or tacks. They can perforate their bowels and lead to a serious life-threatening emergency. Even if they are just putting things in their mouth, the object could have chemicals in them or on them. This might expose your child to unnecessary toxins.
There’s also a social stigma around chewing. If you’re a three or four year old and trying to be in a typical preschool and you’re chewing on toys, it’s unsanitary for the other children.
How to Help Kids that Chew on Everything
One of the first things we want to do is we want to assess the situation. How much are they chewing? Does it happen once in a while or all day long, any chance they can get? Is this chewing just suddenly increasing or has this been an ongoing thing?
You also want to look at when they chew. Are they doing it when they’re alone or when you’re giving them demands? Chewing does not always have to be a self-stimulatory behavior. It often is, but for some kids, it’s a matter of getting attention or gaining access. Some parents are so desperate to stop their children from chewing on things that once they start chewing on things they aren’t supposed to, the parents redirect them and give them a pacifier, which they love.
So then the function could turn into chewing to get good things or chewing to get out of things. This is why we want to keep track. Take a baseline couple days to watch the chewing and see what they’re chewing on and why.
Chewing and Medical Issues
I believe you should do a medical investigation in order to make sure that zinc levels are where they should be in the zinc to copper ratio, which I’ve talked about in another blog on autism medication. That zinc to copper ratio is really important for kids with autism. And it’s oftentimes way off from where it should be. Sometimes zinc supplementation is what’s needed to control chewing and get the child eating.
Now, I’m not giving you medical advice. I don’t want you to go out and just buy zinc without first consulting a doctor. That’s not the point. We really need to do an assessment to see what is needed, what is offered, if anything, and then to start preventing chewing.
How to Prevent Chewing Behavior
Now in terms of prevention, babies do need to chew, especially during teething. But if an older child continues to chew – with or without autism – I think you need to intervene. 95% of your time should always be about prevention. We want to look at not just chewing of non-edible things, but what are they putting in their mouth that they’re supposed to? How are they eating? Are they using utensils, drinking out of a straw, and an open cup, taking food off of a spoon? These are all 18-month behaviors. So, if you have a three year old who is still using a pacifier or a bottle, or not drinking out of an open cup or not drinking out of a straw, those kinds of things should be worked on. Basically you want to assess what’s going in their mouth.
Also, if a child is chewing on shirt sleeves, potentially put them in short sleeves. I know this was an intervention that worked for Lucas. We want to get rid of objects or provide supervision when objects are around. Some kids eat Play-Doh or chew on markers. I would really toddler-proof your house so that children are not going to be able to get to the things that they’re chewing on that could be dangerous.
Using Chew Toys for Kids
Your child invariably will get something in their mouth. If it’s not a big deal and is just an infant toy or something that’s not overly dangerous, you could ignore the situation or you could take it away from the child. You could redirect your child to something else.
But in some cases, at least until you get testing and learn more about how to prevent chewing, you might want to give them a chew toy that is nontoxic. I know in the past, because Lucas was very little when this came out, I was not aware of the dangers of chewing on toxic plastics. Now they do make chew toys that are nontoxic. So, if you are going to give a chew toy, make sure it’s not toxic and is meant for chewing.
This should be a short term strategy, not a long term, and it should be faded as soon as possible.
To learn more about my child friendly approach, both for parents and professionals, take two minutes to fill out my quiz. Then watch the workshop that follows. You can take the quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz, and this will help you get started learning more about how you can turn things around in your life.
In summary, chew toys for kids are frequently used to combat chewing. But I think this is a serious problem that may be caused by more serious medical issues. Ensuring that the child has no underlying medical issues is very important when assessing chewing. Ultimately the main goal should be to prevent chewing and other dangerous behaviors. Remember, take the quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz to learn more about how you can reduce problem behaviors, including chewing.