Q: Why does my child constantly want to chew on things/pick his nose/put his hands in his pants?
A: These are often ways children find to effectively self-regulate and soothe themselves.
Many kids on the Autism spectrum are professionals at self-regulation strategies—they just may not be socially appropriate! We see kids grinding their teeth, picking their noses, blowing spit bubbles, and the dreaded hands-down-the-pants maneuver. Why? Because self-regulation through the midline of the body is popular with kids of all ages.
Self-Regulation refers to our ability to use strategies to control our own behavioral responses in situations. We use many social, emotional, sensory and cognitive skills for this higher-level process. Giving ourselves soothing sensory input when we are nervous, edgy or impatient is a way to calm down and focus.
The Midline of the Body is the imaginary line that runs down the center of the body starting at the brain and dividing the body in half. The midline structures of mouth, nose and genitals are highly innervated (so super sensitive) and always with us, so this is the quick and easy place to get instant soothing. As infants, we got help from caregivers for self-regulation (cuddles, food, pacifiers and more. We also learned to self-sooth by bringing our hand to our mouth to suck when distressed. By adulthood we are pros at self-regulating appropriately. Think of your own ways that you self-regulate and then see if you can relate. Many times, parents discover their own sensory preferences along with their child’s!
Some hidden ways I often see self-regulation happening:
- Humming, singing and whistling involve oral input, vibration, auditory input, plus deep breathing. Great for calming.
- Late night snacking help you get to sleep? Chewing provides deep pressure to the jaw and teeth, tactile input on the gums, tongue and lips, and taste.
- Smells such as lavender sachets and bubble baths are a go-to for many moms
- Drinking liquids from straw or covered cup involves lip puckering and breath control. Taste and temperature changes can be alerting and swallowing can be comforting. Do you grab coffee on your way to the afternoon meeting? You may be looking for something to hold, sip and center you as much as the caffeine rush.
- Focusing on a pretty or repetitively moving object such as desk gadgets, crashing waves or paintings is often calming.
- Music is widely used by many adults to stimulate or relax while exercising, working or falling asleep.
- Heavy work and vestibular input are often used too: Marathon runners, weight lifters and rock climbers are often sensory seekers for organizing. Gardening, cleaning, cooking and walking or even shopping can also be sensory rich experiences that people use to help “clear the head.”
- And, the big one: Masturbation is a quick way to get a max sensory impact from minimal stimulation. Of course, when social norms aren’t a concern for an individual, this can be difficult and embarrassing for families (See our “Puberty and Sexuality” article in the fall issue of Spectrums Magazine).
Increasing other sensory input and behavioral intervention can be helpful. Just know that this is common in many children and usually doesn’t start as a behavior, but a sensory experience. Now, think about the self-stimulating strategies you use, and if someone told you to stop doing it. Forever. It would be difficult, especially without something to substitute in a stressful situation. This thought helps me empathize with my kids and pick my battles. Empathetic as we are, we still have to address inappropriate ways of self-regulation. It can be a challenge. Get some help from your team, and don’t give up!
Joanna Blanchard is an occupational therapist and the mother of two boys on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. She is the owner of Everybody Stims Occupational Therapy in Vancouver, Washington. Have a question for Joanna? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.