The mouth. We eat, drink, sing, sigh, laugh, smile, frown, hiccup, inhale, and exhale through it. We can whistle (or not), cough, spit, breathe and barf through it. Within it, we find our teeth and tongue. So much goes on there and yet, we don’t really think about it. That is, until we have a reason to think about it. Burning your tongue, getting Novocaine, or that inability to taste when sick, that will make you think about it…
When you have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, the mouth can be a big deal. It is at our house. My five year old son with autism and sensory processing disorder is extremely preoccupied with his mouth. Recently, he lost his front two teeth, heightening what was already a source of interest.
I’m not in the medical profession, nor do I possess any kind of health related degree. I’m a mom, observing my child. And to me? My son is both over and under sensitive to his mouth. Here is a Top Five list of greatest interests with his mouth:
Number 5 – Mick Jagger & Gene Simmons – Move Over!
My kid was never one to showcase his tongue. He doesn’t get the concept of sticking his tongue out to make a face at someone. However, lately, he has been sticking out his tongue so far, I’ve been thinking of calling Ripley’s. Once it’s out there, he licks his hand. Well, not really licks. It’s more like touching the tip against the palm of his hand – to understand the spacial boundaries. He tends to do this after touching every dirty surface known to man.
Number 4 – Grinding and brushing.
My son grinds his teeth in his sleep. I’ve heard this is common with children who have autism, but all that I have read about it concerns handling grinding while they are awake. He grinds only while sleeping. Recently, he was diagnosed with silent sleep seizures after an EEG. Since starting on medication, I have not noticed any more grinding but, as above, I’m just the mom, and it’s only been a little over a month since we started the med.
When it’s time to brush those little grinders, he needs help. If I leave him to brush, he literally “air” brushes. He spends more time looking at the toothbrush and questioning me about what character is on the handle or what color it is. I do his brushing. He reaches up to steer me away from certain teeth. He gags easily, even when I’m barely touching the teeth.
Number 3 – Blowing kisses.
In ABA, my son learned how to blow a kiss as a compliance tool. When he lacks focus, the therapist will say “Blow kiss”. Once he complies, ta-da- refocus. Since learning that “sign” language, the little guy is always patting his lips.
He has never told me that he can’t feel his lips. That would be too easy, and autism is not known for making things easy. Instead, I’ve learned by watching.
I watch him touch or move his mouth. He will pat his lips, without seeking attention. Sometimes, he will rub his lips with his fingers or blow up his checks with air and then exhale with little “farting” noises. When I ask him to smile, for a photo or just to show he is happy, he struggles and then tries to over-grin. As time has passed, I’ve come to believe that he can’t regulate the muscles or feel the area around his mouth very well..
If he has food on his lips, he doesn’t know it. When he uses a spoon or fork, he has difficulty. I used to think it was a motor issue. In part, it was. But now, after he mastered other skills with his hands, I believe it’s a lack of sensory processing.
When he is eating finger foods, his hand is over his mouth. It looks polite, covering his mouth as he eats. The truth is, he is trying to figure out if he got it in there or not. Conversely, if it gets anything on his chin, he screams out, “Clean! Napkin!” and wipes. He has hypo and hyper sensitivity to the lips and chin.
Number 2 -Stuffing and Pocketing.
Given his hypo and hypersensitivity, my son has trouble knowing how much food is too much for a bite. He will drop or spill food. He does not use his tongue or smack his lips to clean food off. He can’t do it. He uses his hands. Not knowing whether something has gone into his mouth all the way, he will stuff too much in and spend ten minutes trying to chew it until his chipmunk cheeks recede.
That’s if he swallows it. Sometimes, he will hold it in his cheeks for hours at a time. When he can’t stand it anymore, out of the blue, he will yell, “Spit it out!” and run to the nearest garbage can to get rid of the offending mouthful.
Number 1 – Hot versus Cold.
There are many things that go into tasting something. There is a feel, or texture to what we consume, whether it is a milkshake or a tortilla chip, a cucumber, or a chocolate bar. There is that “feel”. There is the smell. Then, there is the temperature.
My son is highly sensitive to temperatures, especially for food and drinks. Whatever he eats has to be cold or, at a minimum, cannot be more than lukewarm or he will reject it, scream out in melodramatic pain, or spend a half hour blowing on it to cool it off.
So, all in all, I’ve learned that life is all about perspective. The next time you absently toss that bon-bon in your mouth, think about all the steps it took to get it there, wipe the excess off, get it into that belly and brush your teeth afterward. My son does, every time, every day, and that’s a workout.