Autism and oral fixation are linked through sensory processing disorders. It involves chewing on things to alleviate anxiety and stress.

Oral fixation is when you feel the need to chew, suck, or hold an object in your mouth. This behavior is common for babies, but generally alleviates as the child ages.

Understanding the link between autism and oral fixation can help you identify and manage the behavior.

You may also consider finding different oral-seeking behaviors that can alleviate the urge to chew on things.

Sensory processing disorder is prevalent in autistic people. It can result in oral fixation and excessive chewing.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) lists sensory reactivity as a diagnostic criterion for autism.

Chewing and stimming help with body awareness. It’s a method of self-soothing behavior and can occur in children and adults.

If someone is higher on the autism spectrum it can increase their likelihood of living with pica.

Someone with autism might develop an oral fixation for many reasons, including:

  • Medical: easing pain, alleviating discomfort
  • Sensory: seeking texture and taste, overwhelming environment, sensory overload, sensory processing disorder
  • Behavioral: lack of understanding, relieving stress and anxiety, avoiding something, looking for attention, noisy thoughts, uncontainable emotion

Oral stimming is a series of repetitive chewing behaviors. It’s an automatic and uncontrollable reaction for many that experience it.

Stimming is described as calming and comfortable as it creates a feedback loop to regulate emotion. It allows for one focal point, easing overwhelming input.

The overwhelming stimulation could involve external sources or internal overthinking.

Some examples of oral stimming methods include:

Chewing on toys and other objects

Oral stimming often involves chewing on objects to cope with anxiety and stress. You might chew on:

  • rocks
  • paper
  • toys
  • clothing
  • pens or pencils
  • their hands

Eating spicy or sour food

If you need sensory stimulation, you might seek spicy or sour foods. You may crave these intense flavors because they’ll offer the sensation you desire.


If you experience oral fixation, you might overeat, unintentionally. You may try to meet your needs and alleviate discomfort by eating more than necessary.


Oral fixation could occur because of a condition called pica, where people put non-edible things in their mouths.

A large 2021 study of children 2 to 5 years old indicates that pica affected 23% of autistic children and poses a health risk in preschool-aged children.

But the study focused on young participants, so it doesn’t show the prevalence in older ages.

Sometimes it manifests as limited food preference and food texture sensitivity.

The child wasn’t always aware of the differences between edible and inedible things. They might consume objects like:

  • dirt
  • ice
  • soap
  • paper
  • chalk

Some of the treatment options for pica involve applied behavior analysis (ABA) and functional analysis.

These treatments help determine pica triggers and identify underlying causes, including reinforcement or social factors.

You can also keep unsafe objects out of reach, using childproof locks and not leaving children unattended.

You also might want to tell other caregivers your worries, so they know what to watch for with your child.

Nail biting

Biting your nails could indicate oral fixation because it’s an example of stimming. It’s repetitive and can fulfill the need for oral stimulation.

Sigmund Freud described oral fixation or craving begins in the oral state of development during infancy and up to a year and a half old.

It manifests from an obsession with mouth stimulation resulting from being weaned too early or late. Babies find pleasure through their mouths by doing things like thumb-sucking and eating.

An oral fixation often shows as constantly doing activities involving the mouth. It’s a coping mechanism to overcome stressful, overwhelming, or unexpected situations.

Most people who stim can’t help it, and telling them to stop can worsen the situation.

Some of the things that contribute to stimming include sensory overload. You might get triggered by confusion, unpredictability, and overwhelming environments. When it happens, it can lead to stressful emotional states.

Those who experience oral fixation may deal with it during specific times or situations. You might notice that triggers occur during the same time frame each day.

Recognizing what influences the behaviors can help you make positive changes toward managing them.

Some of the things that influence oral stimming include:

  • task demands
  • physical and mental states, including energy levels and well-being
  • the need to concentrate
  • distracting thoughts
  • overwhelming or new surroundings
  • intense emotions
  • anxiety and stress

Oral stimming can be beneficial, but there are also potential negative effects. Some of the issues can include:

  • chewing on unsafe items
  • choking
  • wet clothes
  • breaking a tooth
  • feel self-conscious if someone points out stims
  • resentful emotions
  • unintentional harm to yourself or others
  • being deemed socially unacceptable

Managing stimming behavior can be hard, but healthy alternatives can help make a beneficial change.

The behavior is manageable to ensure safety. Some options include:

  • cleaning oral stimming toys
  • chewing gum
  • keep chewy or crunchy snacks on hand
  • use straws in drinks
  • drink thick drinks, including milkshakes or smoothies
  • heavy work, such as push-ups or carrying groceries
  • whole body movement
  • breathing exercises
  • sensory chew toys
  • therapy

If you know or care for an autistic person who experiences oral stimming, you can support them in managing this behavior by:

  • practicing understanding
  • not telling them to stop stimming behavior
  • checking household objects for broken or loose pieces

Oral stimulation is typically used as a coping technique during stressful, overwhelming, or unexpected situations. And it can be influenced by things, such as:

  • the need to concentrate
  • distracting thoughts
  • overwhelming or new surroundings
  • anxiety and stress

The link between oral fixation and autism is prevalent and can be lifelong. But you can manage oral stimming to make it safer and promote a beneficial situation.

Oral fixation and stimming don’t have to be embarrassing or frustrating.

While it can have harmful effects, try to stay hopeful of making it work in your life. Healthy alternatives are available to help you cope. You’re not alone.