Oral Sensory Solutions
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Are you or your loved one seeking oral input in unhealthy ways, such as biting, licking, or chewing inappropriately? Incorporating healthy alternatives into everyday routines can build up an individual's tolerance to stressors, decrease inappropriate oral behaviors, and improve impulse control and attention.
Oral sensory processing
The sensory receptors in our mouth allow us to perceive temperature, touch, texture, taste, and proprioceptive, or deep touch, information. This oral sensory information processing system is our ability to perceive the world around us through our mouth. When this system is working efficiently, we can eat a variety of food textures, easily brush our teeth, and focus and regulate ourselves. If it is malfunctioning, we may struggle with processing and responding to everyday oral sensory information, or may require more oral input in order to regulate their behavior.
Our first step is determining what kind of response is occurring. There are three general ways our oral sensory information processing system malfunctions.
Oral Sensory Behavior Types
If you notice that only one behavior is present in isolation, or the behavior of trying to eat non-food items is present (PICA), your next step will be to talk to your doctor to rule out any medical causes. Low oral sensory perception is associated with poor oral-motor skills, and needs to be assessed by a speech-language pathologist.
Oral comforts for sensory seekers
Now that you recognize how you or your loved ones are reacting to oral sensory input, you're ready to experiment with offering healthy alternatives. Experimentation is needed, as everyone processes sensory input differently.
As you try different sensory activities, pay attention to what happens around the behavior. You may be able to tell if there is a pattern or trigger. Some triggers may be avoidable once recognized, while others can be managed.
Activities for oral sensory avoiders
- Break down the above activities into small steps that they can tolerate.
- Slowly build tolerance of a vibrating toothbrush. Using firm pressure, brush along the teeth, gums, cheeks, tongue, and palate.
- Explore new foods slowly, with no pressure to eat them. Start by letting them experience what the new food looks and smells like. Let them watch you eat the new food, without drawing attention to it. Let them smell the new food, feel the food on their lips, lick it, or feel the texture in their mouth, then spit it out. Talk about the food's appearance, or how it is similar or different from other foods they're familiar with. Follow their lead- they may like encouraging words, or prefer you not comment on their experience. It may take several times of eating a new food before they're able to incorporate it into their good-day diet.
- Never force any sensory activity or new food. Explain ahead, so they know what to expect,
- Reduce excess sensory input by using light covers, earmuffs, ear plugs, white noise, or preferred music.
- If you find a solution to help fulfill their sensory needs, ensure access is not dependent on anything. For example, don't use it as a reward or deny access as a punishment.
- Offer alternative sensory input rather than try to force them to stop the behavior. Work with instead of against the sensory need.
- Avoid foods that contain sugar for oral stimulation in order to promote oral health (and avoid unnecessary dental visits for cavities).
- If a few days of baths with a handful of epsom salts improves behaviors, they may have low magnesium levels. Follow up with a nutritionist to look for nutritional deficiencies. Nutritionists can recommend supplements such as magnesium, zinc, or fish oil.
- Check for sensitive spots in their mouths, such as a tooth that may have a cavity.
Harmonic Speech Therapy helps individuals gain greater independence through improved communication and self regulation. Please reach out if you would like to learn more: www.harmonicspeech.com/contactus
Best wishes on your sensory journey!
The information offered in this blog post is provided for informational and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as personal medical advice.
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-Tallulah Breslin, MS, CCC/SLP (she/they)
Gender & Identity Affirming Voice Training @Harmonic Speech Therapy