We’re all struggling to get our children to eat the “right” things. For most parents eating the “right” things mean a healthy well-balanced diet. For parents of children with pica – a condition where children eat or mouth non-food items – the struggle is less about eating the “right” things and more about not eating the “wrong” things.
Pica can be a confusing condition to deal with. For those of us who aren’t affected by the condition it’s almost impossible to understand why your child would want to eat foul-tasting inedible items. Like with so many other conditions associated with autism, when we understand the root cause of the behavior we can start to reduce or eliminate it.
Common Root Causes of Pica in Autistic Children
While there’s no single cause for pica, there are some common underlying issues that lead to this puzzling condition.
- Sensory issues: Autistic children are often over- or under-sensitive to their environments. Pica, in autistic children, is frequently the result of sensory seeking behavior. Your child may be yearning for something, crunchy, hard, soft, mushy, warm, or cold, and a non-edible item may provide them with the input they need to regulate themselves.
- Nutrient deficiencies: If your child is experiencing a magnesium, zinc, iron, or calcium deficiency, this can manifest itself in the form of pica. Odd cravings can result from your child’s body working to correct the imbalance.
Treating Pica in Autistic Children
- Safety first: Above all else, when it comes to dealing with pica safety should be the first priority. Household items like laundry soap, dish washer detergent, cleaning chemicals, and fertilizers must be stored safely out of reach.
Standard baby proofing measures usually aren’t enough when you have a child dealing with pica. It’s fairly easy to predict which cabinets and items a toddler might be interested in, it’s much harder to predict what a child with pica might get into. Lock up or move any items within your child’s reach that may pose a threat. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
In our house we’ve used keypad locks that only the adults have the combination to, fridge locks, and cabinet locks to keep our children safe.
- Meet their sensory needs: If you’re able to figure out what sensory experience they’re getting from eating a non-food item you can find a safe and suitable replacement.
Similarly textured food items are an obvious substitution but you can also consider creating an oral motor plan that involves brushing their lips, cheeks, and the inside of their mouth, and their tongue with textured or vibrating oral motor tools.
- Address any nutrient deficiencies: It’s not uncommon for autistic children to have zinc, calcium, or magnesium deficiencies. You can give the recommended dosage of any of these supplements to see if you notice a change in your child’s behavior.
Before you increase the dosage beyond the recommended daily limit you should speak with a health care provider who is familiar with safe supplement dosing for children.
It goes without saying that you also want to make sure your child is eating a well rounded and nutrient rich diet. However, given that many autistic children have restricted diets, this isn’t always possible.
- Teach the behavior you want to see: While behavioral interventions will only take you so far if there’s an underlying physiological cause like a nutrient deficiency, it’s smart to work these interventions into the day to complement your other techniques.
This can be as simple as verally labeling their undesired and desired behaviors. Saying “That’s not food,” or simply, “No, not food” can help your child form the appropriate associations with their environment. On the flip side, saying things like “Yes, that’s food,” when they are eating something desirable can have the same effect.
Make sure that when you speak up about the behavior, you don’t provide any unnecessary attention and you do so without shame or guilt.
If your child is dealing with pica don’t hesitate to address it. This is not a condition that typically resolves itself without problem solving and intervention.
Be gentle with yourself. You’re doing a great job.
I hope this information has been helpful to you as part of creating Your Autism Game Plan.
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