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Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
Children with autism spectrum disorder have behavioral and processing challenges that affect each one differently. Some children may only be mildly impacted, while others may face profound challenges. One reasonably expected behavior is spitting.
Children with autism might actively spit on another person, drool, or rub saliva on people or toys. It is crucial to work with the child on this behavior early on to teach the child how to control it.
Try to Understand Why the Child Is Spitting
The first step in reducing spitting behavior in autism is understanding why the child is spitting. You might start by taking your child to the pediatrician to make sure that there isn’t a biological reason for the spitting. If there is no biological reason for the spitting, you need to figure out why your child is engaging in this behavior.
Your child might be trying to get attention, or the child might be signaling that he or she wants to be alone at this time. The child may even enjoy the way that it feels. It is also possible that the child doesn’t realize that the spitting or drooling is happening.
It is important to observe the child and understand the reason for the spitting to address it.
Start by using the five Ws strategy. Ask yourself who, what, when, where, and why. Look to see if a particular person or type of person brings the spitting out, such as a teacher or specialist.
Maybe it happens when the child doesn’t want to transition. It could be at a particular time of day, or it might occur in a specific place. If you consider the five Ws, you may determine what is causing the spitting, which will help you address it.
Create a Social Story to Address the Spitting
If you determine that your child is spitting on purpose, you can address it with a social story. You can create a short story using visual aids that addresses autism and spitting, and it will be about a specific child. Make sure that the story is short and include solutions.
For example, in the story, you might address appropriate ways to use the mouth, such as talking, kissing, eating, and including inappropriate behavior such as spitting. You can customize the story to keep your child’s interest, including your child’s favorite colors, activities, or toys.
You will want to repeat the social story a few times to help your child understand the message.
Find an Alternative Stimulus
Another approach is to find another stimulus so that the child adopts a replacement behavior. Studies show that a child might stop spitting if there is another more interesting stimulus.
For example, if you notice that the child is spitting during specific times, the spitting could result from boredom. You can provide stimulation that helps the child to overcome the boredom. For example, an intervention like playing soft music could remove boredom.
You might have to try different things because every child is different, but if the spitting is a result of boredom, changing the stimulus can help to teach your child to stop spitting.
Provide an Alternative in Direct Response to Spitting
It is better to provide an alternative activity as you let your child know that spitting is inappropriate. Sometimes it can be as simple as providing the child with a glass of water or snack on. Redirect the child away from autism spitting and towards appropriate uses of the mouth.
You may find that your child is spitting because they have sensory needs at that time, and you can offer an object to provide the sensory release needed. For example, your child may get this release from a squishy toy or another item that fulfills this need.
You can encourage several activities in place of spitting, including fidget balls, bubble blowing, chewy foods, and safe chewing objects. The important thing is to be consistent and address it each time it happens.
Offer a Tangible Reward
Another method for reducing spitting in children with autism is offering a tangible reward when they make the right choice. Once you use social stories to teach your child appropriate uses for the mouth, you can also offer rewards for making a better choice.
For example, when the child chooses an alternate behavior, you can offer a piece of candy and reinforce this with your words. Say something such as “Good job making a good choice.”
Appropriate Consequences for Spitting
Spitting is something that you need to work on from the first time that it appears. You want your autistic child to socialize with other children, and this is a behavior that it is crucial to work on controlling. The key to it is to be consistent. No matter how much patience it takes, it would be best if you addressed it every single time.
It is important to use tools such as social stories, alternative stimulation, and rewards. Your child will learn that spitting is a problem behavior. It might still be difficult for the child to control it, but it will become easier as time goes on.
If your child knows not to do it and starts spitting at anyone, mostly out of anger, you need always to remain calm. No matter how frustrated you feel, it is imperative. You need to know that you are a role model for handling emotions, and if your child is spitting out of frustration or anger and you respond with frustration or anger, you are not going to be able to teach this lesson.
Stay calm and let the child know that spitting is not okay. You only need to give one sentence, such as “spitting is inappropriate” or “spit is for chewing.” If the child spits again, you can repeat the phrase and continue to stay calm.
Next, you should have the child clean up the spit. Remain calm and bring the cleaning materials to the child and show them how to clean it up. If the child spits again, continue to make the kid clean it up. This is a significant consequence as long as you stay calm.
You might consider putting the child in time-out if the child is angry and can’t calm down. You can also work on strategies when the child is not mad. You can show the child how to calm down by breathing from the belly, tensing and relaxing the muscles, drawing, and other techniques.
As you teach our child these methods for calming down, your child may learn to calm down while in time-out. It would help if you only left your child in time-out for the equivalent of one minute for each year of the child’s age.
Create a Behavior Chart
Psychotherapist Amy Morin recommends creating a behavior chart in her article “How to Create a Behavior Chart for Your Child.” This is a quick and easy behavior modification tool that children enjoy.
You can start by working on a few behaviors at a time and then choose times to offer rewards. You might have some smaller rewards such as a sticker or a star, and then you can have larger rewards for a streak of good choices.
It is essential to set reasonable goals for your child and then explain the chart. Your child needs to know that this is a positive exercise, not a punishment. You can use positive reinforcement by praising improvements in your child’s behavior and the progress they make.
You can modify the chart as you move forward to incorporate more aggressive behavior such as hitting, biting, excessive crying, and self-injurious behavior.
Children usually enjoy using a behavior chart, and they enjoy seeing stickers as they accomplish goals. You can use this as a positive tool to encourage and reinforce good behavior and good choices.
Spitting is an expected challenging behavior among children with autism spectrum disorder, but it is something that you can help your child learn to control. It is essential to start working on it the first time your child engages in this behavior because it can get out of control if left unchecked. There are many strategies to help your child with this behavior, but the way to start is with social stories.
It would help if you always remained calm when interacting with your child because you are modeling appropriate behavior. One cause of spitting is frustration or anger, so it is important never to lose your temper. Patience is critical in this case. Always stay calm and use short, clear sentences to teach your child that spitting is not acceptable.
Once you use the different methods to reduce spitting, you will learn which are most effective for your child. Remember that any progress is good. Calm and consistent reinforcement is key to lowering spitting. Over time, your child will learn how to replace spitting with a more appropriate response.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.