Helping My Autistic Son Move Beyond a Saliva Obsession

Amid a global pandemic of a virus primarily transmitted by respiratory droplets, my almost 5-year-old autistic son is conveniently obsessed with saliva. Perfect timing. When he pretends to roar like a dragon or blasts off a rocket, he blows raspberries. When he’s angry, he spits. He chews t-shirt necks until they droop and drip. He puddles saliva on the floor with which he plays. If he contracts anything transmitted via respiratory droplets, everyone in our home will become infected.

These are the current steps we’ve taken in an attempt to curb this lovely new habit. Spitting is allowed in the trash can or toilet. We told him, “Rockets can only blast off in your room.” We remove our audience if he spits.

Why Children With Autism May Be Obsessed With Saliva

In less than 5 minutes of research, Dr. Google told me this is a very common behavior of children on the autism spectrum for various reasons. For one, it can be medical-related. Enlarged adenoids, tonsils, or oral motor weaknesses can cause children to produce more drool than the typical child. So if a child is producing more saliva than they can keep in their mouth, ruling out a medical reason is the first step.

However, once an underlying medical reason is ruled out, the behavior is considered a maladaptive learned behavior. All behaviors serve a function. Typically those functions are to gain something (such as an item or attention), to avoid something (such as transitioning or an instruction), to communicate, to fill a sensory need, or to self-stimulate (stimming).

Providers ruled out medical conditions, which ruled in maladaptive behavior. The functions for my son are a blend of sensory stimulation, communication, and attention-seeking. Understanding this means now our role is to provide appropriate replacement behaviors, use positive reinforcement when he uses a replacement behavior, and use consequences or purposeful ignoring when he spits or uses saliva to fill a sensory need.

How to Curb a Saliva Obsession Based of Function of Behavior

While I’m not a behavior analyst by trade, I have taken the RBT course, and we’ve been in consultation with his behavior analysts. Going forward, this is our plan.

  • Behavior Function – Communication: If he spits at us out of anger, we say nothing and remove ourselves from his presence for 2 minutes. After we tell him it is okay to be angry and tell us you are angry, but spitting is not okay. It is yucky. We will tell him he can clinch his fists if he’s angry instead (or another option). (Consequence = Punishment and Replacement Behavior Taught)
  • Behavior Function – Attention: If he spits to gain our attention, we say nothing and remove ourselves from his presence for 2 minutes. After we instruct him to clean the spit and tell him if he needs something to ask us. (Consequence = Punishment and Replacement Behavior Taught)
  • Behavior Function – Sensory: If we see him chewing on things and creating large amounts of saliva we ignore the behavior and offer a drink, snack, sensory chew, or other distraction. (Consequence = Ignore and Distraction)
  • Behavior Function – Sensory: If we see him creating a pool of saliva on the floor we tell him it’s yucky and saliva can cause people to get sick, we instruct him to clean it and we offer him a drink, snack or other distraction. (Consequence = Punishment and Distraction)
  • Behavior Function – Sensory: If we see him blowing raspberries creating saliva in making sound effects during play for rockets or dragons, etc, we will ignore the behavior and model a replacement sound effect such as “vroom” for a rocket or “roar” for a dragon. (Consequence – Ignore and Replacement Behavior Taught)

If you have a child on the autism spectrum who is currently obsessed with saliva, I hope these suggestions can offer some hope in helping your child overcome this issue as well. I have my fingers crossed they help us!

Update May 2021: To find out how we curbed our autistic son’s saliva obsession based on the strategies above (many of which we changed) check out Minimizing a Saliva Obsession in Children with Autism.

Sometimes those who challenge you the most teach you best. – Anonymous

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Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.