The gustatory system, or our sense of taste, allows us to recognize the five basic taste sensations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. This sense is meant to keep us safe from ingesting things that are toxic, spoiled, or inedible. It plays a very important role in eating and drinking but is not the only sense that allows us to perceive flavor. It would be very difficult to identify the foods we eat without additionally relying on texture, temperature, and sense of smell. When the gustatory system and its closely related senses in the mouth are over or under responding to oral input, you may see a range of disruptive behaviors in children with sensory processing concerns. The need for adequate oral input may cause a child to constantly put inedible objects in his mouth. These may be the children who always seem to ruin their shirt sleeves or collars no matter how many times you remind them not to chew their clothing. Or perhaps the more intense input of oral stimuli are causing your child to refuse all but a select few foods. As frustrating as it can be, the threat of certain tastes, smells, and textures feel very real to a child who is over responding to oral input.
Red Flags for Hyper or Hyposensitivity to oral input:
- Considered a picky eater, often with a food repertoire that is specific to brand or the way in which food is presented. These children often become very anxious at the thought of trying new foods and may gag when presented with one. Mixed textures tend to be particularly difficult for these children.
- Limited variety in the types of tastes, textures, or temperatures of food; may eat food only near room temperature and with bland flavors
- May prefer food either very hot or very cold. May also enjoy heavily seasoned foods or frequent use of condiments
- Dislikes brushing teeth, complains about toothpaste, or has a strong fear of the dentist
- Loves going to the dentist or using strong toothpaste flavors. May also love to use vibrating toothbrushes
- Frequent drooling
- Licks, chews, or mouths inedible objects frequently, such as clothing, hands, toys, pencils, or small objects they find on the ground
Strategies to provide adequate oral input:
- Provide a chewy tool; there are now a variety of ways to discretely utilize them. Whether using a chew tube, chewlery, or a chewy pencil topper, your child will have frequent access to a more appropriate chew toy than his t-shirt!
- Incorporate snacks throughout the day that are crunchy, chewy, or otherwise resistive. Think granola, pretzels, carrots, taffy, jerky, gum, or drinking thick liquids such as smoothies, yogurt, or applesauce through a straw.
- Regularly use a water bottle with a straw throughout the day.
- Use tools or play games that require your child to forcefully blow air out of their mouths. Try whistles or kazoos, blowing bubbles, blowing up balloons, using a straw to blow a cotton ball across the table, using a straw to blow bubbles into a drink, or making art with Blo-pens.
- Try gum or hard candies with strong sweet or sour flavors. Sucking on popsicles or lollipops is a great strategy too.
Consulting with an occupational therapist can be helpful in understanding your child’s specific needs. Because children with significant over or under responsive behaviors to oral input may develop habits that are potentially harmful to their health (i.e., mouthing inedible objects or a severely limited diet), it is important to seek guidance when needed. Incorporating appropriate oral input within a sensory diet or participating in feeding therapy to expand food repertoire can greatly improve your child’s response to or need for oral input.
More on the Subtypes of SPD: