My son is a chewer. He chews bubble gum as often as he can, since his therapist nearly 2 years ago said to let him have it. (I'm not sure the dentist would agree, as the sort of gum that gives good resistance to the jaw does not come in sugar-free!) When he is anxious or stressed, the need to chew increases, sometimes dramatically, and can escalate to biting when he's over-the-top melting down.
He has always been orally different. As a baby he never sucked his thumb or would take a pacifier. He rarely put anything in his mouth. I thought he was just smarter than other babies or something (he was my first, after all, LOL), but now I know those were signs of his oral issues (see the previous post on Feeding Therapy). I'm not a therapist, and am not sure how he went from not wanting anything in his mouth to chewing on so many things, sucking on clothing, yet still being a picky eater. But I do know its all related.
Is this need to chew related to sensory processing disorder (SPD)? Absolutely. The muscles in the jaw are where much of the tension in our body is stored, and the proprioception of hard chewing is an excellent release of that tension. (This is also one reason why we stress eat!) The trick is to find something to satisfy this real need while not destroying things are gaining too much weight.
We keep a variety of objects and foods on hand to satisfy his need to chew. The hardness, crunchiness and tartness are important for either causing alertness or calming him down. Since I homeschool him, he can have these things any time, although I've learned that if I do most of the seat work during meals and snack times, he can get through most of school with just a bit of gum now. Quite an improvement over a couple of years ago!
Lemonheads are great for alerting, as they are sour and require sucking for a time. Calming foods include crunchy pretzels or chips, or really chewy things like Fruit Roll-ups (but my son doesn't like the gummy texture of such things). Double Bubble is both alerting and calming, which is why its our go-to item. Beyond food, we have special eraser tops, P-chews, and Camelbak water bottles (all recommended at asensorylife.com).
When his body and emotions are in a good place for doing school work, I make sure he has other therapy objects for his hands to manipulate. During math, its the abacus. During read-alouds, its Theraputty, Legos, something to draw with (usually a pen, so he can take it apart and reassemble), a tape measure, yarn, clothes pins, or shape-changing toys, such as a Jacob's ladder. If I hand him something to use, he may or may not want to, but if I keep the 'fidget box' nearby, he typically will grab what he needs on his own.
Of course, if he is heading towards a melt-down due to frustration over some subject, these items and foods won't work. They help him maintain equilibrium but can't do the heavy-lifting, so to speak. Next blog hop, I'll discuss what we do to head off imminent meltdowns, and how he recovers if they happen anyway.
Here is another blog post that almost sounds awfully familiar, and my inspiration to share our story - Sensory Integration for Children Who Chew. And of course, the reason for these mostly posts about SPD is the Sensory Bloggers Blog Hop! Check them all out...