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The Link Between Oral Sensory Differences and Autism

Navigating the world of autism can be a confusing and challenging experience for many parents. The signs, attributes, and symptoms associated with each diagnosis are as individual as the persons diagnosed. Many children demonstrate extreme sensory sensitivities: they scream and run from loud noises, or they can’t tolerate their clothing tags. They recoil from some foods while constantly putting inedible (and possibly unsanitary) objects in their mouths. Some don’t seem to use their mouths for anything at all and seem oblivious to other types of sensory input like heat, cold, or even hugs.

Two similar but distinct neurological differences may account for these behaviors. Sensory Integration Disorder (SID) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) both affect how individuals respond to sensory input. Yet, even within these two diagnoses, there is a range of responses when it comes to oral sensitivity. Examine these differences more closely, including causes and potential treatments for strong oral-sensory reactions that may indicate ASD or SID, and learn more about the link between oral sensory differences and autism.

Sensory Symptoms of AutismChildren with autism often experience sensory differences. One frequently overlooked aspect of these differences is oral sensory processing. Some children with autism may be extremely sensitive to certain textures or tastes, while others might seek out specific types of oral stimulation.

These differences can have a significant impact on the child’s ability to eat a variety of foods, speak clearly, and communicate effectively with others. It is important for medical professionals, parents, teachers, and caregivers to understand these differences so that they can provide appropriate support.

Most children put all kinds of things in their mouths as part of their development process. That’s why parents receive constant warnings to be vigilant about choking hazards. But parents who notice atypical behavior relative to a child’s age should seek a diagnosis and recommendations for knowledgeable occupational and speech therapists who work with kids with oral sensory differences. With proper care and understanding, children with oral sensory differences can develop healthy eating habits and improve their communication skills.

Sensory Integration Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder are Different but Related

Sensory integration disorder and autism spectrum disorder are two closely related neurological conditions that affect an individual’s ability to process sensory information. Professionals characterize Sensory integration disorder (SID) as a child’s level of difficulty with organizing and interpreting sensory input, leading to heightened sensitivity or under-sensitivity to certain stimuli.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), on the other hand, is a developmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. Individuals with ASD may also experience sensory processing difficulties, which can lead to sensory overload or shutdown. While professionals do not consider SID a diagnostic term under the DSM-5, they commonly associate it with ASD. While people with SID are often not autistic, many individuals with ASD also have SID. Understanding the intersections between these two conditions is crucial for providing effective support and improving your child’s overall quality of life.

Common Signs of Oral Sensory Issues

Children with autism can exhibit various behaviors that can indicate oral fixation, which is a need for oral stimulation. One common sign is mouthing objects or licking things frequently. This behavior can be a way of self-soothing from other types of overstimulation or overwhelming sensory input.

Thumb and finger-sucking habits are also typical in children with autism who display symptoms of oral fixation, as these behaviors also offer a calming sensation. These signs can be challenging to identify in some children with autism, particularly when they are still at the age when thumb or finger sucking seems typical. It is essential to understand their behavior patterns closely. Recognizing the symptoms of oral fixations can help caregivers provide proper support and ensure their children receive the right treatment.

Some Autistic Children Have Strong Oral Fixation, but Others Never Mouth Things

One of the interesting aspects of autism is that some children with the condition have a strong oral fixation, while others seem to never put anything in their mouths. They even show extreme reluctance to eat many types of food.

Experts have presented various theories on these observations. Some believe that the difference could be due to sensory processing issues that kids with autism experience. According to this theory, children with oral fixation use their mouths to explore the world around them because they find it less stressful than other forms of sensory input, like smell, touch, sight, or hearing.

Another theory suggests that some children with autism mouth things to cope with anxiety or stress, just as many developing children do when they suck their thumbs or fingers. Regardless of the explanation behind oral fixation, it is essential to understand that the link between oral sensory differences and autism is as unique as each child and their coping mechanisms and behaviors.

Treatments for Oral Sensitivity or Fixation in Children With Autism

Oral sensitivity and fixation can be challenging for children with autism. Possible treatments can include:

  • Teething toys – which can provide children with a safe way to satisfy their need to chew or bite while also providing sensory input that can be calming.
  • Textured foods – such as crunchy fruits, vegetables, and snacks.
  • Sensory-friendly diets

Therapists often use these foods to satisfy a sensory need, so the child they’re working with can concentrate on developing a different skill or learning coping strategies for more extreme sensitivities.

Conversely, children with oral sensory issues loathe foods that are oily or slimy, soft or squishy, or bland. Some crave spicy foods, while others can’t tolerate them. Each child is unique and will make their personal preferences known in no uncertain terms. These preferences can make providing adequate nutrition a challenge, but with the help of professional therapists, parents can find ways to create a healthy, sensory-friendly diet for their child.

Oral sensitivities can be a serious issue for children on the autism spectrum. Thumb and finger sucking can cause malocclusion of the teeth and deformation of the soft palate, along with additional speech communication issues. If a child persistently sucks their fingers, therapists can direct their parents or caregivers on how to stop finger-sucking by offering alternative means of comfort. Devices like the AeroThumb can help break the habit if the child can tolerate wearing the apparatus for a month or so.

Parents and caregivers of children suspected of having either sensory integration disorder or autism spectrum disorder should request diagnosis and treatment from a qualified medical professional. Effective treatments may include occupational or speech therapy, behavioral modification, environmental adaptation, and in some cases, medications.

Working with an experienced therapist can help those with either SID or ASD to better cope with daily living and reduce problematic behaviors. No matter which disorder is present in your child, it’s important to understand that they are unique and require personalized strategies for success. By introducing simple changes into your child’s environment, providing the necessary therapies, and building strong relationships with experienced professionals, you can take positive steps towards helping your child lead a happy and healthy life.

The Link Between Oral Sensory Differences and Autism