Pica and Autism

Pica is an abnormal craving for non-edible substances. The word “pica” comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating anything in its path. Children between the age of two and three, and/or people with developmental disabilities display pica behavior such as consuming dirt, hair, foam, paper, etc. Hospitalizations for pica incidents have risen a startling 93% over the last ten years, a jump attributed to the rise in autism. Women and children with autism are most vulnerable to pica.

Geophagy is the term for pica sufferers who eat dirt. Among the other common cravings are clay, paint chips, plaster, chalk, cornstarch, laundry starch, baking soda, coffee grounds, cigarette ashes & butts, feces,buttons, glue, ice, sand and toothpaste.

Obviously, many of these substances pose considerable dangers such as lead poisoning from paint chips, gastrointestinal obstructions, bowel problems, dental calamities, parasitic infections from dirt and feces and intestinal perforation.

The very young all go through the stage of putting everything in their mouths, but some children persist with the behavior. Pica behaviors can indicate dietary deficiencies such as anemia. Some children simply lack the ability to discriminate between edible and non-edible substances, while others have sensory issues like a need for oral stimulation. Still others may have mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia.

What can you do if your child has pica? 

Scrupulous attention to child-proofing your home is recommended, as is personal vigilance in watching your child. Consultation with a nutritional expert may unearth deficiencies which can be addressed. Many have reported that the addition of zinc to a child’s diet alleviates pica. Sensory chew toys can provide a viable outlet for the child seeking oral stimulation. Behavior modification is a useful approach, but should be handled with consistency by a professional lest the behaviors simply be driven into secrecy. Because so many factors contributed to pica, it’s best to get help in determining the best plan to keep your child safe from foreign substances they introduce to their own bodies.

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