G2 is a child that has a fascination with chewing stuff. As a toddler, he chewed up books, toys, bottles – anything that he got his hands on. I wasn’t too bothered because I knew that many children go through an oral stage where they feel a need to put things into their mouths. The mouth, being one of the most richly innervated parts of the body, is highly sensitive which makes it an effective tool for young children trying to explore a new object. G2 would eventually grow out of it, or so I thought…
G2 is 5 years old and he’s still chewing objects to a pulp – like this piece of Lego:
He’s chewed up countless objects, including the strap on his water bottle and a keychain. He chews off his nails before they can even grow long enough for me to cut them. I’ve caught him putting numerous non-food items in his mouth despite the fact that I have repeatedly explained to him about the dangers of doing so. After observing him for a while, I realised that he isn’t really even conscious of what he’s doing sometimes. It’s only after I bring it to his attention that he becomes aware and he stops only to start again a few minutes later when something else distracts him.
Some time back, a friend suggested that I get him chewable jewellery so I started to look into it. It turns out, chewable jewellery and fidgets have been found to be very effective for children with ADHD, Autism and other learning disabilities.
Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., of Purdue University, studied the factors that help ADHD children succeed in the classroom. In ADHD and Education, she notes that attention “deficit” increases with the length, familiarity, and repetitiveness of a task. In other words, you tune out when tasks get boring!
According to Zentall, an activity that uses a sense other than that required for the primary task — listening to music while reading a social studies textbook — can enhance performance in children with ADHD. Doing two things at once, she found, focuses the brain on the primary task.
Zentall calls these sensory-motor activities “distractions.” We call them fidgets — mindless activities you can do while working on a primary task. We’re not talking about wriggling in your seat. Fidgeting is more intentional. It’s pacing or doodling while on the phone or chewing gum while taking a test. – Additude
So how does this relate to my child who does not have ADHD or any learning disabilities that I am aware of? If fidgeting helps children with ADHD, will it also help my active child? A study from the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology indicates otherwise:
Children with ADHD who performed a working-memory task while seated in a chair that could swivel performed better on average the more they moved. The opposite was true for a control group of typically developing children, who fared worse the more they moved. – WSJ
Yet it was clear to me that G2 needed a fidget because I would be trying to teach him Math using manipulatives and he would absently keep taking my counters. He couldn’t concentrate if I took them away from him. And if I didn’t find him something safe to chew on, he would continue to chew potentially hazardous objects. What was his problem?
Sensory Processing Disorder
There is a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder (also referred to as Sensory Seeking Disorder) where individuals afflicted with the condition are constantly looking for ways to stimulate their senses. They are often very active and impulsive and are frequently diagnosed as having ADHD (even if they do not).
Just in case you’re wondering whether SPD is just a trumphed up disorder in our world of hypochondria, the UCSF have found a biological basis for SPDs in kids.
There are several different types of Sensory Processing Disorders based on the type of sensory input the individual seeks. SPD also exists on a spectrum with symptoms manifesting in different ways. Like ADHD, the diagnosis of SPD is only given when the symptoms are severe enough to affect normal functioning and disrupt everyday life. It was also interesting to note that Sensory Processing Disorders may be present in isolation or they may occur along with other conditions, such as ADHD, ASD, developmental disorders, or learning disabilities.
- Love touching and being touched
- May become even physically violent in search of touch
- Feel the need to touch everything or everyone, craving certain textures
- Often try to balance out touch sensations on either side of the body
- Crave certain textures and flavors excessively
- Frequently overstuff their mouths when eating, even to the point of gagging
- Will put anything in their mouths in search of oral input, such as chewing or crunchy sensations
- May have a diagnosed eating disorder for overeating
- Will chew or suck on things excessively
- Love to crash or bump into things
- Frequently crack knuckles or stretch limb
- Crave highly physical activities and love to play contact sports
- Often bump into or jump onto furniture
- High levels of energy and arousal
- Love loud noises, often watch TV and listen to music very loudly
- Will often speak louder than is necessary
- May frequently make noises just to hear them
- Need to listen to music to concentrate
- May love or crave bright lights
- May frequently stare at bright or spinning lights
- Need a lot of light in a room to concentrate or focus
- Crave movements in head or body position
- May love to spin in circles
- Love being upside down or sideways
- Love going on roller coasters and other amusement park rides
- May frequently jump from high heights
- May repeat certain movements almost endlessly just for the sensation
I don’t know for sure if G2 has SPD but he certainly fits the bill for a number of SPD types. Neither am I sure if I could go as far as to say that his symptoms disrupts everyday life but then again, absently putting objects into your mouth even when you know it’s dangerous doesn’t sound quite right either.
They say that children with specific SPDs (like the kind I think G2 has) can also benefit from having fidgets and safe items to chew on so perhaps we should just start there. If he’s going to chew on stuff no matter how many times I tell him not to, it is probably better for both of us if I offer him a safer option.
Interestingly, after learning about these signs and symptoms, I realise that G1 also exhibits SPD, albeit in a different manner. It was his teacher that brought it to my attention when she suggested that he might benefit from using fidgets in class. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, I feel bad about all the times when I got annoyed at him for his unconscious actions, like sucking his lips until they became red, and for doing other similar actions that I had always presumed were conscious and deliberate.
Dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder
A good place to start is the School Success Kit for Kids with Sensory Processing Issues (focus on the tips that apply most to your individual child):
- Stress-Free Clothing: When it comes to clothes, use the 3 S rule: softer, simpler, and seamless.
- Avoid the New: For example, the first day of school is not the right time to try those brand-new outfits. If it is a new school uniform, let your child try it out a week before school starts.
- Hearing Protection: Sound-cancelling headphones to foam earplugs can be great tools for dealing with the noise from school buses, lunchrooms, halls, and even classrooms.
- Eye Protection: Lightly-tinted sunglasses can help the light-sensitive child.
- Sensory Kits: Depending on your child’s individual needs, this kit will vary but some great things to add include: chewing gum, a comforting tactile object they can play with without disrupting the class such as a stress ball or silly putty, snacks to keep blood sugar up, and a weighted lap pad.
- Signs and Signals: Give teachers a heads-up about your child’s sensory needs, so they’ll know what to look for and how to support him during class. Kids can also arrange to have a secret signal with teachers they can use if they need a break.
- Give Everything a Test Drive: Whether it’s a new kind of ear protection or the most comfortable bookbag, be sure to test drive all your new tools ahead of time.
- Routines: Kids with sensory issues do best when they know what to expect.
- Accommodations: Kids with sensory issues may need accommodations of a different kind than schools are used to granting. For example, being allowed to chew gum, wear dark glasses, or use earplugs during class. You can also ask to be warned of potentially jarring school events, such as fire drills or surprise pep rallies, so you’ll have time to make sure your child is prepared.
For some children, this may be enough. Others may require more help. The Child Mind Institute also talks about the use of treatment methodologies such as Sensory Integration Therapy and Sensory Diets.
Fidgets and Chewable Jewellery
- Chewigem – designed for the mild to moderate chewer and is intended to sooth and comfort children through adults with any type of additional needs.
- ARK Therapeutic – innovative therapy tools and special needs products from oral motor tools, feeding and drinking aids to speech therapy tools and sensory chews.
- Tangle Jr – stress relieving fidget toys.
- Are you sure my child has ADHD?
- ADHD and creativity go hand-in-hand
- Children with ASD – Why You Need to Recognise it Early and Get Help
- Movement is good for brain development
- Programs for children with cognitive impairment and learning disabilities
- Merzenich on Autism and Learning Disabilities