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How to manage pica with SENSORY therapy? 

What is pica?

Pica is an eating disorder in which people eat nonfood items, such as dirt, rocks, or paper. Pica can be psychological, nutritional, and sensory.

Who is most affected by pica?

Pica tends to happen within populations with autism spectrum disorder, pregnancy, schizophrenia, or mental health disorders.

What causes pica?

One of the possible causes of PICA is sensory issues. This means the brain processes sensation differently, causing a person to crave non-edible intense textures and tastes. These may include but are not limited to objects like: plastics, grass, rocks, crayons, paper, or feces.

How does pica affect healthy habits?

People who have pica eat non-edible items and don’t have awareness or self-control to choose edible food. This may cause harm to the digestive system, and may affect other body systems negatively.

The potential effects of pica include sensory seeking behaviors and oral seeking behaviors.

What are sensory seeking and oral seeking behaviors?

A behavior that indicates a person is under sensitive, also known as hyposensitivity. Children who are sensory seekers have less awareness of how their bodies are moving and when they touch objects or people. They seek out sensory input in physical contact. They may be under sensitive to pain and ignore injury.

Children who need more input in the mouth may display oral seeking behavior.

Children with oral seeking often seek out strong textures, intense tastes, and pressure from chewing or biting down hard. A kid who is an oral seeker may perceive intense flavors to be plain. Sensory seeking behavior and oral seeking behavior can often occur at the same time. A child with constant movement may also prefer crunchy and strong flavors of food. 

Strategies for pica-related oral seeking:

  1. Provide chewy toys and/or crunchy snacks

  2. Chewing can be an effective self-soothing strategy. 

Examples of chewy necklaces

  1. Understand and communicate with kids regarding the reason behind the pica

  2. Is it because of the taste, texture, smell, or memory?

  3. Replace non edible food with edible food: Brainstorm what edible food is similar to the non edible food the person likes (similar smell, taste or texture).

  4. During moments of pica, redirect and help your child to pick up edible food instead of the inedible object.

  5. Provide edible snacks or water for kids to access at all times (in the car, in a purse, in a pocket)

  6. Practice positive reinforcement and use a reward system: Provide rewards (verbal praise, i.e. good job) following a good or desirable behavior immediately.

  7. For example, the kid picks up an edible food then a non edible food. Say “good job” immediately or provide a reward for good behavior.  

Examples of heathy crunchy snacks: nuts, apple slide, crackers, berries

Crunchy snack examples

Kids with sensory seeking behaviors may be more active, risky, and feel hungry more often. They may also prefer food with strong flavors and crunchy textures.

OTEllaBella does not assume responsibility or presume to act as a replacement for therapy services from a certified OTR/L. Consult your OT for recommendations and treatment.

I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy
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