Autism and Pica

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Pica is a serious eating disorder that involves eating non-edible substances. According to MyHealthNewsDaily, hospitalizations for this disorder increased a whopping 93 percent between 1999 and 2009 and almost one-third of these cases involved children with autism.


    Parents of young children are always on the look-out for unknown or dangerous items going in to their child's mouth. What parent hasn't grabbed buttons, dirt or other items out of their child's hands quickly to prevent their toddler from swallowing these items? But pica goes beyond the normal childhood desire to put everything into their mouth. Pica is an unnatural craving for non-food items.

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    According to the National Autism Center, some examples of non-food items consumed are:

    • dirt
    • clay
    • paint chips
    • plaster
    • chalk
    • cornstarch
    • laundry starch
    • baking soda
    • coffee grounds
    • cigarette ashes
    • burnt match heads
    • cigarette butts
    • feces
    • ice
    • glue
    • hair
    • buttons
    • paper
    • sand
    • toothpaste
    • soap

    While some of these items are harmless and won't cause harm to your child, there are dangers to eating non-edible and non-food items. For example, objects can cause bowel obstructions or paint chips may contain lead, leading to lead poisoning; eating dirt or feces can lead to infections and hard objects, such as buttons can cause teeth to crack.


    It is not understood why some children ingest non-food items. Limited studies have shown the following possible reasons:

    • An iron or other nutritional deficiency
    • Sensory stimulation
    • Anxiety, such as obsessive compulsive disorder.
    • The inability to distinguish between food and non-food items.

    What Parents Can Do


    If your child is ingesting non-food items, it is best to talk with your medical professional. He or she may want to run some tests to find out if there are nutritional deficiencies or if there are any infections or other problems present because of the pica.


    Based on your doctor's findings, he or she can recommend what you can do to help your child. If there is a nutritional deficiency, your doctor may suggest working with a nutritionist. Children with autism often have specific eating considerations, for example, some children with autism may only eat a certain texture or color food. A nutritionist can help you create a diet, including adding vitamins and minerals, that will make sure your child gets the proper nutrients.

    Working with a behavioral specialist may also help. Behavioral strategies can help, for example, one school for children with developmental disabilities had a child with pica throw out the item 10 times each time he tried to eat a non-food item. The school reported that this intervention helped end the pica in the child. Remember, each child with autism is unique and your behavioral specialist can help develop strategies to work with your child.


    Your child's team of therapists may also work to teach your child to discriminate and distinguish between food and non-food items. Depending on the age and cognitive levels, your child may go through training in understanding what food items are and the dangers of eating non-food items. If your child is not able to distinguish the difference, oral appliances or self-protection devices can be used to prevent him or her from putting objects in their mouth.


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    It is important to try to find the cause of the pica. Many children have been misdiagnosed with a mental illness because of pica. Finding the root cause can help you create a plan of action to keep your child safe.




    "Dirt Eaters and Other Pica Cases Nearly Double in Decade," 2011, Spet 14, Rachael Rettner, MyHealthNewsDaily


    "Eating and Feeding Issues," Date Unknown, Staff Writer,

    "Pica," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, National Autism Center


    "Pica in Autistic Children," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services


Published On: April 18, 2012