Pica In Children with Autism

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Overview of Pica

Pica is a condition where children consume nonfood items of no nutritional value. Such as eating dirt, paint or wood glue, etc.

While there is a lot of information on pica, it’s hard for parents to find reliable information about the causes of this behavior and how they can treat it.

In this article, you will learn what pica is, why your child might have developed this habit, and how you can help them overcome it.

What is a pica eating disorder?

Pica eating disorder is a condition that causes a person to eat nonfood substances compulsively. Young children that have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are often found to have pica.

Examples of pica eating behaviors include:

– Eating paint chips

– Eating cigarette ashes or burnt matches

– Chewing on pebbles or rocks

– Eating substances of no significant nutritional value like chalk, plastic, paper products (i.e., Styrofoam), pencil erasers, buttons

– Swallowing items that the body can’t digest, such as coins or toys

Pica was once thought to be a symptom of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and Asperger’s syndrome but has been more recently recognized as psychologically-based eating behavior and is commonly found in children on the autism spectrum.

What Causes Pica?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. Some experts believe that individuals with autism seek sensory stimulation, and pica is one outlet for this desire. Others suggest it may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Iron deficiency anemia or malnutrition are two of the most commonly cited reasons for pica in any child. This can be why it is common in children with autism because they are often picky eaters, which can cause a lack of proper nutrition.

Pica symptoms

Symptoms of pica can vary based on the child’s age and on what the child is digesting.

Here is a list of common symptoms


Your child may seem tired and listless if they are not getting the nutrients they need to function.

2-Intestine Blockages

A common pica-related injury is a blockage in the intestines. This can lead to abdominal pain, vomiting, and constipation.


Eating substances that aren’t food can cause nausea.


Eating nonfood items can scrape and tear the lining of your child’s mouth, leading to ulcers.


Not being able to digest food properly can lead to diarrhea.


Can increase the risk of infection from bacteria and viruses found in feces or garbage, for example. It also raises a child’s risk of becoming sick from chemicals that may be on these objects.

7-Disruptive Behavior

Pica can cause children to engage in disruptive behaviors. For example, a child may act hyperactive and become more impulsive.


Some pica cravings can put your child at risk of seizures or other neurological issues.

8-Increased Aggression

Pica may cause some children to become aggressive because they cannot control their impulses due to nutritional deficiency.

How is pica diagnosed?

The medical evaluation of pica suspected may include potential infection by anemia, intestine blockages, and possible toxic effects. The doctor may use tests like X-rays and blood tests to check for anemia and look for toxins and other substances in the blood. Accordingly, a doctor will observe the behavior patterns of pica eating.

There are no set criteria for pica diagnosis because pica is a symptom of another problem, not a disorder in itself. If pica continues, it should be treated as soon as possible to keep the child safe from serious health risks.

How is pica treated?

The good news is many times; pica goes away by itself. Once pica starts, it may continue and become a habit that your child cannot stop. This can be harmful to their health if they are not getting the nutrition they need for average growth and development.

Since pica is associated with iron deficiency anemia, children with pica can receive an iron supplement meant to reduce pica c

Treatment for pica involves removing the object or substance being eaten from the diet. If it is an iron deficiency causing this eating behavior, the doctor will prescribe iron supplements.

Referral for counseling and psychotherapy may be necessary in pica cases where pica is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, or other psychiatric problems.

Treatment will also depend on how severe the symptoms are and what type of pica behavior is involved.

How can parents manage Pica?

Here are some examples of how to manage pica in the home:

– Remove pica triggers

A pica trigger is any object or substance that triggers pica behavior. For example, pica may be triggered by items that are found in the house, such as paper, pebbles, scissors, or aluminum foil. Removing pica triggers can be done by limiting your child’s access to these objects.

– Provide pica objects that look similar but are safe

If pica is triggered by a specific nonfood item (such as paper, paint or dirt), provide pica substitutes that look like the pica trigger but are not dangerous. For example, pica triggered by dirt may be satisfied with an edible form of the object (google chocolate soil). 

If pebbles trigger pica, you can provide “pebbles” that are safe, bigger, and easier to chew on so they don’t digest it.

In conclusion, pica is a condition that can range from mild to severe. If pica is left untreated, it may become an issue for the patient as pica may cause health problems, malnutrition. It is essential to get pica treatment to prevent pica behavior. Pica is a condition where children eat nonfood items which can be dangerous for the child. Pica should be seen by a doctor if pica continues or if pica presents other symptoms like anemia, malnutrition, or intestinal blockages.

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Rhonda Stewart

Clinical Director

Rhonda Stewart, BCBA, NYS LBA, earned her Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism from the Sage Colleges. Rhonda has dedicated her career to working with individuals diagnosed with Autism since 2008. Rhonda has a wide range of experience working with individuals from ages 3 to adulthood in various settings including early intervention, schools, residential programs, group homes, day habilitation programs, center programs, and in-home services. Rhonda began working with families through insurances services in 2014. Rhonda is currently the Clinical Director at Yellow Bus ABA and works closely with the Executive Clinical Director, Estelle Parnes, to ensure services provided to our families are effective, families feel supported, and families have a positive experience with ABA services at Yellow Bus ABA.