Here’s a fun little thought-experiment for you: If every item of clothing in your drawer was pulled out and tossed into a massive pile containing every piece of clothing from the drawers of every person who lives on your block, could you pick out which clothing items are yours from the big pile? What about picking out yours from the inevitable identical items that would show up? I would never have trouble picking out my hoodies, shirts, and other clothing from a random pile. This isn’t because I have some unique sense of style or have all my clothes custom made. No, I know this because I’d look for the telltale frayed drawstrings on my hoodies and tiny rips and holes on the bottoms and sleeves of my t-shirts that give away my affinity for chewing on the clothes I’m wearing.
And it’s not just clothes either. I’ll chew on bath towels and paper clips and little slips of paper. I’ll shred wooden pencils and chew holes in pillow cases and chew on just about anything I might have in my hands. It’s almost like ever since I was a baby I never stopped teething. I almost always have something in my mouth, and though as I’ve gotten older I’ve managed to stop chewing holes in shirts and soaking my sleeves in saliva by the end of the day, I am still very much an avid chewer, as are many autistic people out there right now.
Why is this? Well, this is known as “oral fixation” and though it certainly isn’t restricted to autistic people it is something that is much more common in autistic people. Actually, I think most of the autistic people I’ve connected with either in person or over the internet have reported having some sort of oral fixation. Sigmund Freud proposed that an oral fixation happens when a person did not have the opportunity to properly teethe when they were a baby and that an oral fixation is a predictor of developing a smoking habit, though as I learned in an online psychology course I took this last semester Freud was very influential in the field of psychology but was also very wrong about many things, and I think this is definitely one of them.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I always end up with something in my mouth, but I think it goes deeper than just some sort of developmental micro-trauma (and I don’t think I’m on my way to a smoking habitat either, seeing as the smell of cigarette smoke makes me feel sick). All I can say is that I am usually chewing subconsciously, I do so more when anxious or otherwise stressed, and it seems to fulfill some deep-set need for me. So, what’s really behind an oral fixation and why do so many autistic people seem to have one? Well, here’s the best answer I could research, and one that makes perfect sense:
It’s probably sensory.
Chewing on things is probably a sensory-seeking activity. In that case, it makes chewing on objects or putting them in your mouth a form of stimming, and stimming is good because it helps keep our bodies and minds regulated. Therefore, for an autistic person who’s a chewer, chewing is cognitively important and like 99.9% (rhetorical number) of stims, does absolutely not need to be “extinguished” or anything of the sort. Stimming is good and is beneficial to autistic people (and people in general).
However, it is obviously not optimal to chew holes in things or put potentially dirty objects in one’s mouth or wear around a shirt with a soaking wet patch all day. So, how can one chew in a way that’s, err… less destructive? Well, available for purchase over the internet are latex items designed specifically for chewing on. I recommend stimtastic.co which is an autistic-run company that has a large catalog of chewables and other “stim-toys” designed specifically with the needs of autistic people in mind and is catered towards both autistic teens/adults and autistic children. In addition, their products are very affordable and about the best price you’ll find anywhere for stimming-gear (mainly because most companies specifically upcharge “special needs” products while Stimtastic, to my knowledge, does not). I particularly enjoy the chewable necklace pendants, as you can just wear it around and fulfill your chewing needs whenever. Latex chewable items in general are great for those with an oral fixation. (And my endorsement of Stimtastic was made entirely on my own volition because I like the company and the products they offer and was not sponsored in any way shape or form).
If you’re autistic and you chew on things, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. Don’t let anyone tell you that your way of being is wrong. Embrace your stims, because I honestly believe that if we as a community do this, the stigma around them will slowly erode away.
And if you’re the guardian, teacher, counselor, etc of an autistic person or autistic people, please don’t view chewing or other ways of stimming as behaviors that need to be stamped out modified, but rather as ways for an atypical brain to process the confusing world around it. A small part of ensuring the best possible quality of life for an autistic person is to accept and accommodate stimming in a loving and stigma-free way, and that includes chewing.