I currently have a new little assistant to work with at The Sensory Projects, this week he has been reminding me of a skill I talk about often on my training days: mouthing. Mouthing is currently more interesting to him than anything else. My sensory wonders, his toys, even the flashing singing plastic kind do not, currently, hold a candle to mouthing for him. The things he wants to mouth above all others is his own hands.
He is actually doing a very sensible thing. He has far more nerve endings in his mouth than he has on his fingertips, so when he puts things into his mouth he gets a lot of tactile information about what they feel like. He can build up this bank of knowledge about how things feel and then translate that detailed understanding onto the less detailed knowledge his fingertips give him as he explores.
Children, and indeed adults, of any age who want to find out more about how the world feels can be drawn to mouthing. We can support them by finding a range of objects that are safe for them to mouth. For children in the early years, this is a part of their development, and telling them to stop putting things in their mouth can mean it takes them longer to acquire the information they are looking for.
Other people mouth because conditions such as epilepsy act on their brain and wipe out the knowledge they acquired so they look to find it again. Sometimes if access to experience is limited, people can stay mouthing beyond the point where it is developmentally relevant for them, simply because it is an interesting and engaging activity.
If you think someone is mouthing, not because they are developing their tactile knowledge, but rather because it is easier for them to gain stimulation in this manner than in other ways, you can try two things:
- Create an environment where it is easy for them to independently access other stimulation. A simple way to do this is to create an activity rail. For my little assistant, I often lie him (supervised) under the clothes airer and dangle things from it. For a bigger child or an adult I use a clothes rail and dangle things from that.
- Share activities that offer stimulation to other parts of the body, for example foot massage or exploring textures with bare feet.
Mouthing is explorative. You may also have children who seem to need to bite things, sometimes other children, but often themselves or objects. The urge to bite down firmly can come from being in a state of heightened anxiety. A long time ago we were living in caves and our survival depended on the outcome of the hunt. If we had food we were safe, if we did not, our lives were under threat. The sensation of biting hard, and chewing, (the actions which historically would have signalled our safety) are reassuring to us.
If you are supporting children who are feeling anxious, tackling the biting is a bit like sticking plasters over spots to tackle chicken pox i.e. you are treating the symptom not the problem. In my next article I will share some sensory support strategies for people who feel anxious.
About the author:
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.