Chew on It

Noah is naturally curious. He is also highly destructive. I believe the one naturally springs from the other, but it’s induced many a resigned sign when I have to repair or replace a trail of mutilated possessions. He deconstructs toys. He cuts his clothing. He tears the soles off his shoes. He sticks things in outlets. Yes, that’s right. I have the smoke-marked wall to prove it. Somewhere, there’s a guardian angel walking around with an electrically-induced afro.

Take also the number of things that Noah will put in his mouth. Coins, toys, sticks, clothing. In some ways, it is like having two toddlers in our house. I have to constantly police his munching because I cannot be certain of what dangers lurk behind his teeth. And the nail biting and finger chewing is an entirely separate struggle altogether.

After much research (so much of this journey is the learning of his language, becoming an expert on the manners in which he both communicates and is soothed), I’ve learned that chewing is a form of calming self-stimulation (or “stimming”). This is just one type of stimming Noah exhibits (he also hand-flaps and stiffens), and is tied in particular to Noah’s sense of proprioception.

Proprioception is our capacity to sense movement (e.g., the forces of gravity and changes in body position). In many autistic children, their proprioceptive sense is dysfunctional; these children then seek a spike in movement or sensation to feed this deficiency and organize information sent to the muscles and joints through the nervous system. Deep pressure, hand flapping, spinning, jumping, rocking, and chewing become calming and organizing. They “ground” autistic kids. Noah exhibits all of these techniques, but lately it’s been the chewing that’s had the biggest impact on our bottom line.

Here is one of his shirts:


Here is the headrest of the carseat that sits directly in front of him:

It's a dog! It's a mouse! It's....super-chew!

Every day that I find Noah shirtless in front of the TV, I know he’s gone to work like a rabid beaver on that day’s clothing. And it’s not just the necklines. He’s been known to stuff an entire sleeve in his mouth. The subsequent dampness then becomes its own source of discomfort, so he sheds the shirt that’s become stained with whatever he happened to be eating prior to his clothing “snack.” I try to avoid chocolate and tomato sauce. They’re even harder to remove after they’ve been masticated into the clothing.

I’ve offered him chewing “equipment” from, but he’s uninterested. Just today, he picked up one of Jesse’s old Baby Einstein Teethers. I don’t want to discourage his stimming. I know he finds it calming, and frankly, I’m loathe to cut off things that settle him – particularly because he also carries an ADHD diagnosis. Quieting influences are in short supply in our house. I simply want to re-direct how he expresses his stimming. And if it saves us some costs in the process, then all the better.

So, I work hard to catch him and redirect him these days: bouncy balls, chewing sticks, hard pretzels, our trampoline. My husband and I have also simply lain on top of him like human blankets. That pressure shows Noah where his body is in space, it orients his mind toward calm. And the rest of the house follows suit.

– Sarah