Much like hand flapping, spinning, or rocking, licking can serve the purpose of a self-stimulatory behavior in children and adults with autism. Understanding the reason behind the behavior is important, and it may help you redirect the impulse if you feel that is necessary.
Licking as a "Self-Stim"
Self-stimulatory behaviors -or "stims" - are actions that may help an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) cope with his or her environment. According to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 95% of children with autism struggle with processing sensory information, a condition also known as sensory integration disorder or sensory processing disorder.
One prominent theory, according to Psychology Today, is that individuals with autism cannot filter out and process all of the sensory information they receive on a daily basis. Repetitive behaviors, which are one of the core diagnostic criteria for ASD, are a way for these individuals to deal with all the sensory information their brains are receiving. The Autism Research Institute reports that licking can be one of these stim behaviors.
Licking Objects and Other People
For children who struggle with sensory challenges, licking objects and people may be a way to receive sensory information about taste and texture. They may lick toys, furniture, clothing, and other surfaces. The behavior may become repetitive if it is reassuring to the individual.
If an individual with sensory challenges and ASD is seeking tactile sensory input, licking himself or herself may satisfy that need. It may be grounding and calming, and this emotional response may encourage the continuation of the behavior.
Concerns About Licking Behavior
Licking and mouthing objects is a typical part of early development. However, if this behavior persists past the first two years of life, it may be cause for concern.
There are a number of reasons licking behavior may trouble parents and caregivers. Depending on the severity of the behavior, these concerns may require some type of intervention to redirect the stim.
Mouthing and licking people and objects can facilitate the spread of germs, especially in communal areas like school classrooms. By licking objects, a person can pick up illness-causing viruses and bacteria or spread illnesses he or she may already have.
According to the book Autism Spectrum Disorders, repetitive licking can result in tissue damage. If an individual continuously licks the same spot on his or her skin, the skin may become cracked and dry.
Another major concern about licking is the social response to this behavior. Other children may find the behavior disconcerting, and it can interfere with cooperative play. Since social challenges are already part of ASD, this may be one of the most serious concerns about licking.
Interventions to Redirect Licking
Since the licking behavior serves a purpose, it's important to redirect that need to a more acceptable behavior. Working with an occupational therapist can help many children and adults find better ways to deal with this sensory need.
According to occupational therapist Paulette Schafir of Communication Works, a center specializing in social learning, speech, and occupational therapy, there are some specific ways to work on this goal.
Encourage Use of Chewing Tools
Chewing tools, available at many special needs stores and websites, can offer a great alternative to licking. Many of these tools clip onto clothing, so they are always handy when the individual needs oral sensory input.
- National Autism Resources has a good selection of chewing tools, including some that slip over the end of a pencil. They come in a variety of shapes, colors, and textures and start at about six dollars.
- Therapy Shoppe has some excellent options as well. There are several different styles of cuff bracelets, which might offer a great alternative to licking clothing or skin. You'll also find dozens of other styles, starting at around six dollars.
- Fun and Function offers a variety of sensory toys for autism and other special needs. For kids who like to lick clothing, the Bite Band might be a great option. This is a super-absorbent chewing tool that kids can wear. It retails for $25 for a set of six.
Offer Food Alternatives
Food alternatives, such as low-sugar lollipops, can help individuals appropriately direct their licking behavior. It's also a good idea to experiment with the temperature and texture of food since these changes may satisfy the sensory need.
Try some of these ideas:
- Cold or frozen foods, such as popsicles, frozen fruit, and ice chips
- Crunchy foods, such as carrot sticks, rice cakes, and corn chips
- Chewy foods, such as gum, dried fruit, and meat jerky
- Foods with strong flavors, such as lemons and radishes
Find an Occupational Therapist to Help
If you are concerned about the licking behavior of someone on the autism spectrum, contact your doctor about a referral to an occupational therapist in your area. With therapy and encouragement, it is possible to redirect the licking and reduce the hygiene, health, and social issues that come with it.