Is it normal for a child to eat foreign objects?

Is it normal for a child to eat foreign objects? My autistic son is 9 and eats wood, rope, cardboard, and rocks. How can we stop him from doing this before he causes himself any harm?

The behavior that you are discussing is Pica. Bottom line, it is the eating of non-edible objects. The majority of the time,  the child engages in Pica because it feels good. This is a dangerous behavior because the child could develop a bezoar which then would have to be removed surgically.

The idea behind most of the interventions is to teach the child to understand what is non-edible and exchange the nonedible for an edible or to throw away the non-edible and request an edible.

The major problem is that you have to be extra-vigilant when blocking attempts to engage in the Pica. As a behavior analyst, we must always try the least restrictive method possible in the reduction of the problem behavior. However, when the health and well-being of the child are at risk (one occurrence of the Pica could put the child in the hospital), you need to block the presence of the behavior at all times.

I have seen other behavioral analyst use splints to block the occurrence of the Pica. However, if you use lock splints to prevent the occurrence of the problem, this also hinders the ability to teach the child how to distinguish from a non-edible and edible. I have used splints in the past that allow for the bending of the arm. These type of splints allow for the child to engage in his regular routines (eating with a fork, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, etc.). The splints simply block the child from putting items into his mouth. (I have also used the splints to reduce face slapping).

However, they are ugly. Attached you will find a link to a picture of the splints. The round joints could be locked easily in several different positions to limit or give access to the range of motion.

My advice is that you seek a vendor of prosthetic limbs and braces to develop the splints. They will be able to do a custom fit on the braces and possibly something more aesthetically pleasing. Remember; the idea is to reduce the Pica and replace it with another behavior (requesting edible items). The cost of the splints is usually $400 dollars in the states and will require a medical script from the doctor.

Behaviourally speaking, a behavior analyst would take about 80 hours or less during a one year period to assess, develop the treatment plan, implement the interventions (train the parents and care staff) and monitor the child’s progress. With high parental participation, you could quickly reduce the hours accordingly.  An inspiring parent blog can be found here, where you can see first hand the benefits and issues with using the splints. 

Here is a link to New Pica Tool Kits from the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network from the ‘Autism Speaks’ website. I find them to be a useful tool in the dissemination of information to parents.







Joe Willard