Autism and Pica: What You Need to Know

People with autism often surprise others in the most delightful and interesting of ways. But other times, their behaviors may be confusing, odd, or even dangerous.

Pica is just one of many disorders that are often seen comorbidly in people who have autism or other intellectual disorders and disabilities. The behaviors associated with it probably seem strange to those who don’t have it, and they could be very dangerous to those who do have it. But knowing more about it can help you figure out what to do to keep someone with autism and pica safe from this harmful behavior.

Photo: Adobe Stock/AlcelVision
Photo: Adobe Stock/AlcelVision

What is pica?

Pica is a condition characterized by eating or chewing on items that are not food, particularly when one continues this mouthing practice after the age of two. The types of items eaten vary between individuals and may include anything from stones and dirt to hair and paperclips to feces and toxic substances.

Pica is estimated to affect about four to 26 percent of the population, although it may be underreported.

Photo: Adobe Stock/malija
Photo: Adobe Stock/malija

How does someone get diagnosed with pica?

Relative to autism and other comorbid disorders such as dyspraxia, pica is actually very easy to recognize and diagnose. Its one and only symptom is usually an easy one to pick out.

Figuring out what causes pica in an individual, however, may be more of a challenge, especially in a non-verbal person. Distinguishing between medical, dietary, sensory, or other needs may require careful observation and trips to the doctor or dentist.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Roman Stetsyk
Photo: Adobe Stock/Roman Stetsyk

Why does pica occur?

There are several reasons why someone with autism or an intellectual disability may eat something that is not food. In some cases, pica can be an attention-seeking behavior or an avoidance tactic, but this certainly isn’t always the case.

For many people, the choice to eat non-food items is about sensory stimulation, as sensory issues are very common in people with autism. Whatever they’re choosing to eat provides an enjoyable taste or feeling in the mouth or throat and fulfills a sensory craving.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Frantab
Photo: Adobe Stock/Frantab

In some cases, pica could be a more developmentally linked issue. A person who eats non-food items may simply not understand the difference between food and things that aren’t food, or he or she may still be in a continuation of the infantile mouthing phase, despite not being an infant anymore.

A third reason someone might exhibit signs of pica is that of a dietary need. Chewing on or eating non-food items may be a symptom of iron or zinc deficiency or an inadequate amount of some other mineral…or perhaps just the inability to communicate hunger.

And lastly, there could be a medical or dental condition involved. A person may chew on or swallow certain objects to alleviate pain or discomfort, or to help them channel their overwhelming anxiety or stress.

Click “next” to learn how to treat pica.

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