Helping My Autistic Son Move Beyond a Saliva Obsession

Amid a global pandemic of a virus primarily transmitted by respiratory droplets, my nearly 5-year-old autistic son has become obsessed with his saliva. Perfect timing. He blows raspberries when he pretends to roar like a dragon or when he’s blasting off a rocket. He spits when he’s angry. He is constantly chewing on everything, which causes saliva to drip from his mouth. He spits on the floor until he’s created a puddle of saliva with which he plays. I am quite certain 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. We’ve permitted him to spit in the garbage can or toilet. We’ve put him in his room when he’s blowing raspberries while making sound effects and said, “Rockets can only blast off in your room.” We’ve separated ourselves from him when he has spat on one of us. Yet, the obsession continues.

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. Things such as enlarged adenoids or 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 then 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 self-stimulation (stimming).

My son has had underlying medical issues ruled out, so that rules 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

I am no behavior therapist, but my son has been in behavior therapy long enough, and I’ve asked enough questions that I realize the road ahead will be a lot of work for my husband and me, but here is our new plan.

  • Behavior Function – Communication: If he spits at us out of anger, we say nothing and immediately put him in his room 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. (Consequence = Punishment and Replacement Behavior Taught)
  • Behavior Function – Attention: If he spits to gain our attention, we say nothing and immediately put him in his room 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 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, 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 also 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 lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.