Should You Use Chew Toys for Kids with Autism?

Most infants chew on various toys and blankets, especially while they’re teething. Some kids with autism – or signs of autism – continue to chew well beyond infancy. Whether they are chewing on their hand, shirts,  sleeves of their shirts, or any nonfood items, it can be a real problem. A common intervention that is sometimes suggested is to give them a chew toy. In this blog, I’ll be discussing chewing and why I don’t usually recommend using chew toys for kids as an intervention. 

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. 

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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.

More Resources

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. 

Are you worried about your child chewing on things they aren't supposed to?
Take my autism quiz

Transcript

Most infants chew on various toys and blankets, especially while they’re teething.  Some kids with autism or signs of autism, continue to chew well beyond infancy. So, whether they are chewing on their hands, whether the, the they’re chewing on their shirts or their sleeves of their shirts or any nonfood items, chewing can be a real problem.

A common intervention that is sometimes suggested is to give them a chew toy. Hi, I’m Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, registered nurse, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and bestselling author.

Each week I provide you with some of my ideas about turning autism or signs of autism around so if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, you can do that now. When my son Lucas was a preschooler after he was diagnosed with autism right before he was three years of age, uh, he used to chew on everything, including his shirt sleeves, uh, shirt collars, toys, and markers. Um, he used to chew when he was little and I’ve had many clients as a behavior analyst and some online participants, now that I run online autism courses, I’ve had many people of toddlers and preschoolers, um, often post about, uh, their kid’s mouthing and chewing items, and they want to know how to stop this from happening.

We used to give Lucas a chewy tube, uh, 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 him to these chew toys, um, once he starts chewing on something he’s not supposed to.  But when a child has excessive mouthing or chewing of clothing or objects, I think in many cases 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 and, uh, making a, an appointment with the child’s physician who can order blood work and, or you might wanna consider going to a nutritionist, maybe one that specializes in autism who might be able to help you with knowing if it’s a nutritional deficiency that’s leading to all of this chewing.

There are plenty of dangers involved with chewing. I’ve done video blogs on PICA and mouthing and PICA is actually ingesting non-edible foods. And sometimes it can be very dangerous, whether they’re ingesting mulch or even sharp objects like nails or tacks, uh, it can perforate your bowels. It could be a serious life threatening, uh, emergency.

And so even putting, um, things in your mouth,  they could have chemicals in them or on them. And it could really expose your child to unnecessary toxins. So plenty of dangers of chewing, it also affects their, you know, um, social stigma, 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 obviously. It’s also socially stigmatizing to have this behavior occurring. One of the first things we want to do is we want to assess the situation, how much are they chewing? Is it a one once in a while thing or is it all day long, every chance they can get? When do they chew? Is this chewing just suddenly increasing or has this been like an ongoing thing?

Um, You also want to look at when they chew, if they’re alone, if you’re giving them demands, if they’re chewing. 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, getting access. So some parents are so desperate to  stop their children from chewing on things that once they start chewing on other things, uh, the parents redirect them and give them a pacifier, which they love.

So then it could turn into a function of, I chew to get good things. Um, I chew to get out of things. Um, so, but we want to keep track. We want to really take a baseline couple days, watch chewing and see what they’re chewing on. You also, like I said, I believe you should do a medical investigation, um, in order to make sure that zinc levels are where they should be and the zinc to copper ratio, which I’ve talked about in another blog on, um, supplement use, um, that zinc to copper ratio is really important for kids with autism.

And it’s, it’s oftentimes, you know, way off where it should be. Sometimes zinc supplementation is what’s needed to control chewing and get the child eating better too. And I’m not giving you medical advice. I don’t want you to go out and just buy zinc and give the same dosage that somebody online told you to give your 30 pound child.

That’s not the point. We really need to do an assessment to see what is needed, what is off balance, if anything, and then to start preventing, um, chewing. 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.

And 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? Are they drinking out of a straw, an open cup? Are they 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, um, not drinking out of an open cup, 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 that, um, when objects are around, like, some kids eat Play-doh or chew on markers. So then I would want to have the markers, really, uh, 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. And then what to do reactively when your child invariably will get something in their mouth. Um, you can, you know, if it’s not a big deal, if it’s just a, uh, infant toy or something like that that’s not overly dangerous, you could ignore the situation, you could take it away from the child, um, you could redirect, but in some cases, at least until you get testing and learn more about how to prevent chewing you might want to give a chew toy that is nontoxic. Um, but this should be a, uh, short term strategy, not a long term, and it should be faded as soon as possible. So you do, if you are going to give your child a chew toy, make sure it’s not toxic.

Um, 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. Um, so 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, make sure it’s meant for chewing. Um, but this should be a short term plan, not a long term plan.

To learn more about my child friendly approach, both for parents and professionals, toddlers through, uh, teens. I would love it if you take two minutes to fill out this quiz, which is super easy, and then watch the, uh, the workshop that follows you can take the quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz, and this will help you get started, um, learning more about how you can turn things around in your life. In summary, chew toys 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 like an unbalanced zinc to copper ratio 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. If you liked this video, I’d love it, give me a thumbs up, leave a comment or share this video with others who might benefit. And I hope you have a good week and i’ll see you right here next time.

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