Swallowing Soap

Some compulsive or repetitive behaviors displayed by individuals with autism are annoying or socially inappropriate. But some actions are dangerous. If a person chews on or swallows soap, dirt, coins, rocks, paper clips, or anything else that fits in their mouth, there is a potential for serious illness or injury. Because constant vigilance is difficult at home, school, and other settings, compulsive chewing or swallowing is an issue that requires immediate attention.

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For a variety of reasons, some individuals with autism are obsessed with eating or chewing on one or two specific non-food objects. Others indiscriminately put nearly everything they touch into their mouths. Depending on the object, chewing or swallowing can lead to choking, poisoning, blockages or tears in the digestive tract, infections, or lack of appetite.

Constant 24/7 monitoring is next to impossible, so it is best to take some proactive steps to prevent obsessive and repetitive chewing and swallowing. For example, supply pull-over shirts without buttons for individuals who chew buttons off their shirts. Another proactive step is to provide safe oral motor sensory toys for individuals so they are less likely to put dangerous objects in their mouths. An occupational therapist can recommend the most appropriate oral motor item. Other strategies are described below.

SAFE HAVEN. Obsessive eaters need a hazard-free hangout as much as their caregivers need a few breaks from constant vigilance throughout the day. Take time to create a safe place at school and home that is cleared of all potentially hazardous objects. Survey your friend’s environment and remove anything that fits in their mouth – all buttons, beads, paper clips, hair clips, rubber bands, coins, rocks, shells, thumbtacks, bottle caps, caps to pens, staples, candles, nick nacks, soap, napkins, coins, electrical plugs, plants, dirt, and other small or harmful objects or liquids. The safety survey requires exploring every nook and cranny of the unsupervised space. Look in every drawer and closet, and under beds, bookcases, and cabinets. Put caps on electrical outlets and, if necessary, put a piece of heavy furniture in front of outlets.

SAFE BATHROOMS. A person who tends to eat Kleenex, toilet paper, paper towels, or soap needs constant supervision in the bathroom. The following plan can be implemented to allow family members to sleep without having to worry about bathroom safety throughout the night. Have only one bathroom accessible, and keep other bathrooms locked. In that accessible bathroom, keep all soap, tissues, and other potentially harmful items locked in a cabinet.

OUT OF REACH. Sometimes it is not possible or practical to remove all small items from an entire household or classroom. Some of our compulsive friends can be gradually taught to keep their hands down and to stop putting items in their mouths. But, unless they are 100% reliable, it is our responsibility to keep tempting objects and substances out of arm’s reach. It is not an option, for example, to place a youngster’s chair near a teacher’s desk, then to fuss at him for grabbing items from the desk. Keeping small objects out of reach is the only way to protect compulsive eaters and to lower the stress level for people around them.

We welcome your challenging situations or innovative solutions about this issue or others you encounter in your daily life. Just post a comment or send an e-mail to talk@FAQautism.com

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to talk@FAQautism.com And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com

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