Pica refers to eating or mouthing non-edible items, such as stones, dirt, metal, faeces.

The reason a person on the autism spectrum might experience pica could be medical, dietarysensory or behavioural and include:

  • not understanding which items are edible and inedible
  • seeking out sensory input – the texture or the taste of the item
  • relieving anxiety or stress
  • relieving pain or discomfort
  • displaying a symptom of iron deficiency 
  • a continuing of infant mouthing behaviour, or a later occurrence of the mouthing phase
  • seeking attention
  • avoiding a demand.


You could try to:

  • set up a sorting activity for the person to sort edible and inedible items
  • use PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to encourage the person to put appropriate items in their mouth and reward them
  • replace the inappropriate item with an appropriate alternative of a similar texture, eg a crunchy carrot stick, a chewy tube, popcorn, chewing gum
  • visit the GP or dentist to rule out any medical problems, oral pain or nutritional deficiencies, or to seek referral to an occupational therapist
  • increase the amount of structured activities in the person’s day
  • respond as neutrally as possible when the behaviour occurs, giving a firm 'no' with little eye contact, reinforcing it with a symbol
  • reduce demands placed on the person
  • distract and divert their attention.

 If you are reading this information from a print-out, you can visit the web page and find out more at www.autism.org.uk/challengingbehaviour