Why do so many autistic people chew on things?

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.

Horizontal Shot Of The Eraser End Of Three Chewed Pencils.  Two
Horizontal shot of the eraser end of three chewed pencils. Two are coming from the left side and one from the right side. White background. Black text reads “Autism & Chewing”

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).

Chewables
Chewable pendants from Stimtastic.

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.

8 thoughts on “Why do so many autistic people chew on things?

  1. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your writings. They make so much sense to me and are such a great insight into what may be unknown to my neurotypical brain. Thank you! Keep up the great writing! -Jeni

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Chewing really does leave a mark, doesn’t it, Quincy?

    I would have said it hurt less than biting and was more … experimental.

    Yes – it does keep your mouth and tongue going.

    When I was small I chewed my lips and cheeks when I was thinking.

    Good point about microtraumas and the Freudian point of view you were exposed to in online psychology.

    Other oral fixations include licking and blowing and sucking.

    Chewing covers all sorts of things from nibbling daintily to these big chops – and then the things for feedback.

    Thank you for the Stimtastic recommendation.

    Chewing does satisfy all sorts of senses – tactile; proprioceptive; interoceptive [this is big!]; visual; auditory.

    And it has a way of putting the world in order and, as I have said, making a mark which is predictable; which drawing or writing may not; or even smearing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great description of stimming, and indeed it does help to stimulate and regulate many different senses. I always appreciate your comments, even if I’m really bad at responding to them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, Quincy.

        Glad we caught each other this time.

        Had meant to catch you at morning Colorado time when first I saw your comment in the Dashboard [and Mateo’s Mum too]. Things happened and I was not in the groove/zone.

        Another thing about babies – it takes them a while to find their hands and feet – especially when they are still.

        And teething does take a long time – about 18 months-2 years. [yours truly was reading about dentition in the Funk and Wagnalls] – so it’s one tooth or gum eruption/disruption after another.

        And each one affects the other in a way.

        [there is a lot of misinformation and I do not wish to add to it].

        One of my Gumby figurines – Pokey the horse – got The Treatment on the hooves.

        Probably the least obvious spot.

        Tiny bites!

        If I had been thinking of the comfort/soothing aspect I might have gone for Pokey’s body.

        I was 10 or 11 when I was interested in the whole Gumby universe and the bendability/flexibility.

        Of course the characters were originally in clay/plasticine.

        Not so great for chewing – unless it were edible in the first place – there is not a lot of grain/give.

        Much better for pounding and throwing and kneading and folding.

        Another aspect of oral fixation would be the tongue and the palates – and as I have discussed; chin and cheeks.

        Everything around the neck and throat and jaw – if it is vulnerable and insecure.

        Begin with the gums and membranes.

        Like

  3. Thank you for this post. I never considered the stimming angle, but it makes a lot of sense. I chewed the heck out of my pens and pencils for many years. I still occasionally stick one in my mouth unconsciously, but far less often these days.

    Liked by 3 people

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