Pica and Autism: Risk Factors & Implications

Explore the complex interplay between pica and autism, its impact, and strategies for management.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
April 17, 2024

Pica and Autism: Risk Factors & Implications

Understanding Pica in Autism

Pica and autism are two conditions that, when present together, can pose particular challenges for affected individuals and their caregivers. In order to address these challenges effectively, it's important to understand what pica is, how prevalent it is amongst individuals with autism, and the associations and risk factors connected to these conditions.

Definition and Prevalence

Pica is defined as the repeated ingestion of non-food items. This behavior can be life-threatening and is more common in preschool-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ASD characteristics, and Intellectual Disability (ID).

Compared to the general population, the prevalence of pica is considerably higher in children with ASD (23.2%) and Developmental Delays (DD) (8.4%), as well as in specific subgroups such as ASD with ID (28.1%), ASD without ID (14.0%), DD with ID (9.7%), DD with ASD characteristics (12.0%), and DD with both ID and ASD characteristics (26.3%). However, pica prevalence is not elevated in children with DD who have neither ID nor ASD characteristics (3.2%).

Pica is most common at 36 months (2.29% prevalence) and decreases as children age.

Risk Factors and Associations

There is a significant association between pica and autism at all five stages of data collection, indicating that children with ASD are at a higher risk of developing pica.

Similarly, individuals with Developmental Delays (DD) are more likely to experience pica at 36, 54, 65, 77, and 115 months compared to those without DD.

Understanding these risk factors and associations can provide valuable insights to caregivers and medical professionals, aiding in the early identification and management of pica in individuals with autism.

Impact of Pica on Individuals with Autism

The interplay between pica and autism can have profound health and behavioral implications. Individuals with autism who engage in pica behaviors are subject to a range of risks and challenges.

Health Risks

Pica, which is defined as the repeated ingestion of nonfood items, can pose severe, even life-threatening, health risks. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who exhibit pica can face serious medical and surgical problems, including gastrointestinal parasites, lead toxicity, nutritional deficiencies, choking, and poisoning. More severe complications can include intestinal obstruction, perforation necessitating surgery, and even life-threatening blood infections [3].

The risk of pica is particularly elevated in children with ASD, ASD characteristics, and intellectual disability (ID). The prevalence of pica is significantly higher in children with ASD (23.2%) and developmental delays (DD) (8.4%), as well as in specific subgroups such as ASD with ID (28.1%) and DD with both ID and ASD characteristics (26.3%).

Behavioral Implications

Pica is also associated with certain behavioral patterns in individuals with autism. For instance, pica behaviors have been linked to undereating, overeating, and food fussiness at 36 and 54 months [2].

Atypical eating behaviors, limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food textures, and sensory processing difficulties common in children with ASD may result in both atypical eating and pica behavior.

In addition, individuals with autism may engage in pica as an attention-seeking behavior or due to sensory stimulation or nutritional deficiencies, such as low iron and zinc [4].

These findings highlight the complex relationship between pica and autism, underscoring the need for caregivers and healthcare providers to be aware of the risks associated with pica in children with ASD. Through careful monitoring, the implementation of safety measures, and early intervention if a child consumes non-food items, the negative impact of pica on individuals with autism can be mitigated.

Managing Pica in Autism

The management of pica, especially in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), requires a comprehensive approach that involves both preventive measures and a multidisciplinary strategy.

Preventive Measures

Preventing pica in individuals with autism begins with understanding the specific triggers and motivations behind the behavior. Once these are identified, strategies can be put in place to minimize the occurrence of pica.

For instance, if certain textures or tastes are found to trigger pica, these can be replaced with more suitable alternatives. Similarly, if pica is used as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety, other more appropriate stress-relief techniques can be introduced.

It's also important to ensure that the individual's nutritional needs are being met. According to NCBI, pica behaviors were associated with undereating, overeating, and food fussiness at 36 and 54 months. This suggests that addressing any underlying dietary issues could potentially help reduce the occurrence of pica.

Preventive measures also involve creating a safe environment for the individual. This includes removing any non-food items that could be ingested and potentially cause harm, as well as closely supervising the individual to prevent them from consuming inappropriate items.

Multidisciplinary Approach

Due to the complex nature of pica and its association with autism, managing this behavior often requires a multidisciplinary approach. This approach involves the collaboration of various professionals, including psychologists, behavior analysts, occupational therapists, nutritionists, and medical doctors.

Psychologists and behavior analysts play a crucial role in understanding the underlying motivations of pica and developing behavioral interventions to replace this harmful behavior. Occupational therapists can provide strategies to meet the individual's sensory needs in a more appropriate manner.

Nutritionists can offer advice on dietary changes that may help reduce pica, while medical doctors can monitor the individual's physical health and provide necessary medical treatment if complications from pica arise.

The goal of this multidisciplinary approach is to address all aspects of the individual's wellbeing, from their physical health to their emotional and sensory needs. By working together, these professionals can provide a comprehensive and effective management plan for pica in individuals with autism.

In conclusion, managing pica in individuals with autism can be a complex task, but with the right preventive measures and a multidisciplinary approach, successful management of this behavior is possible. By understanding the unique needs and challenges of each individual, appropriate strategies can be developed to reduce the occurrence of pica and improve the individual's overall quality of life.

Strategies for Addressing Pica

Addressing pica in individuals with autism requires a multifaceted approach that considers both sensory needs and behavioral interventions. This involves understanding the unique propensities of the individual and tailoring strategies that are both effective and sensitive to their needs.

Sensory Needs

Pica, characterized by an appetite for non-food items, can be attributed to various factors, including sensory stimulation. People with autism are known to engage in pica behaviors to satisfy certain sensory needs. Common items that individuals with autism may try to eat include paper, soap, pebbles, thread, and bits of clothing [4].

Addressing the sensory needs of individuals with autism can help manage pica behaviors. This may involve providing alternative sensory experiences that are safe and appropriate. For instance, using sensory toys or engaging in activities that keep the child's hands busy can reduce the tendency to consume non-food items.

It's also crucial to make sure that the individual's nutritional needs are met, as deficiencies (such as low iron and zinc) can contribute to pica behaviors. Regular blood tests to detect nutritional deficiencies can be helpful in this regard.

Behavioral Interventions

Given the potential health risks associated with pica, it's essential to take proactive steps to manage this behavior in individuals with autism. Behavioral interventions can be highly effective in addressing pica.

One important step is to inform teachers and caregivers about the child's pica tendencies, encouraging them to monitor the child closely and intervene when necessary. Additionally, "pica-proofing" the environment by securing non-food items can help prevent the child from ingesting harmful materials.

Working with behavior specialists to develop effective strategies is also key. This can involve teaching the individual to differentiate between safe and dangerous items for eating, and enrolling them in programs focusing on skill-building, redirection, and alternative behaviors.

These strategies, combined with a supportive and understanding environment, can significantly help manage pica in individuals with autism. It's important to remember that every individual is unique, and strategies should be tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.

Case Study: Challenges of Severe Pica

To understand the complexity and severity of pica in individuals with autism, let's examine a case study. The story of James Frankish, an autistic individual who tragically lost his life due to severe pica, provides valuable insights into the challenges of managing this condition.

Case of James Frankish

James Frankish was an autistic individual with a learning disability who suffered from severe pica, the compulsive ingestion of non-food items. His case was particularly challenging because of the wide range of non-food items he would consume and the compulsion he felt to obtain his preferred items.

His pica behavior was believed to be driven by sensory needs and compulsion, providing comfort and aiding in the management of anxiety. The taste, texture, and compulsive nature of pica items seemed to play a significant role, with pica behavior often increasing during times of anxiety or sensory dysregulation [5].

Despite efforts to keep him safe, James' severe pica led to his untimely death at the age of 21, highlighting the seriousness of the condition and the vital importance of effective management strategies.

Management and Lessons Learned

Managing pica in individuals like James involves ensuring their safety, monitoring for signs of ill health, and providing regular health checks. Preventing access to dangerous items is crucial, but removing these items can lead to increased stress and anxiety, intensifying the drive to obtain them.

Strategies that can help manage anxiety, distract from pica, and provide sensory input may reduce engagement in pica. These can include interventions like a 'Sensory Diet' or a 'pica-box' of safe alternatives.

Effective management of pica often requires a multidisciplinary approach tailored to the individual, including input from various health professionals. Information about pica should be included in medical records, care plans, and education health and care plans (EHCP) to ensure continuity in management across different settings like school and residential care.

The lack of available guidelines and support for managing pica, particularly in autistic individuals, underscores the need for addressing this gap in knowledge to ensure safety. While there are currently no evidence-based treatments for pica, behavioral-based interventions have shown promise in reducing pica behavior. A combination of approaches is likely needed given the complex nature of pica.

Understanding the preferred tastes and textures through a sensory assessment can aid in developing effective management strategies. Engaging the person in meaningful activities to reduce anxiety and the drive to engage in pica can also prove beneficial [5].

The case of James Frankish underlines the seriousness of pica in individuals with autism, highlighting the need for continued research, awareness, and development of effective management strategies.

Support and Resources

Finding the right resources and support can greatly benefit individuals dealing with pica and autism, as well as their families. Accessibility to valuable information, guidance, and emotional support can help in managing these conditions and improving quality of life. Here, we highlight some national organizations and helplines that can provide assistance.

National Organizations

Several national organizations are dedicated to providing support and resources for individuals dealing with eating disorders and related issues, including pica.

  1. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is a non-profit organization committed to supporting individuals affected by eating disorders and promoting body acceptance and eliminating body image issues [6].
  2. The Body Positive, a non-profit organization, empowers individuals to cultivate self-love and a positive body image through workshops, educational programs, and online resources.
  3. Be Nourished focuses on body trust, offering workshops, training, and resources centered around body acceptance and healing from disordered eating, emphasizing intuitive eating and autonomy.
  4. The Center for Mindful Eating, a non-profit organization, promotes mindful eating practices to support a healthy relationship with food and body through resources, webinars, and professional training.

Helplines and Assistance

Helplines can provide immediate assistance, guidance, and support for individuals and their families dealing with eating disorders and related issues.

  1. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness Helpline provides support and resources for individuals dealing with various eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and body image issues, guiding them towards recovery and healing.

These resources can provide significant help in managing pica in individuals with autism by offering information, guidance, and emotional support. Remember, you're not alone. Support and assistance are available, and recovery is possible.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9188765/

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10275014/

[3]: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/features/ASD-digestive-issues-and-pica.html

[4]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/pica-autism

[5]: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/professional-practice/managing-pica

[6]: https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/eating-disorder-hotlines