Minimizing a Saliva Obsession in Children With Autism

If you are the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder obsessed with their saliva, you must be frustrated! Not only is the world still in the midst of a global pandemic transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets, but playing with saliva is also messy and socially unacceptable. My autistic son is six years old, and a little over a year ago, that is precisely what our family was dealing with. But, fast forward to today, and even after my son spread COVID-19 throughout our family, things are so much better!

How We Curbed Our Son’s Saliva Obsession

First Determine the Function of the Behavior

After first ruling out any medical reasons that may be causing excessive saliva or drool, the next step is to determine the function of the behavior. Not only for children with autism but for all children, most behaviors serve a function. The child may be trying to communicate that they want to gain access to something, avoid something, get attention, or the behavior may be serving a sensory need.

After a trip to his pediatrician ruled out any underlying medical conditions, we determined the function of the saliva obsession for him was nearly EVERY function! So we had our work cut out for us! Nonetheless, we made a plan, learned, adapted and adjusted the plan, and saw great results!

What We Did

If he spat to communicate anger:

We’d say nothing, put him in his room, and set a timer for 2 minutes. After the timer went off, we’d tell him it is okay to be angry and tell us you are angry, but it isn’t okay to spit. Spitting is yucky. We told him instead to clinch his fists if he is angry.

But, moving him to his room when he was angry often led to tantrums, and the tantrums often led to meltdowns. So then we decided instead of trying to move him, we’d remove ourselves from his presence and go into another room. I’d tell him, “I don’t like when you spit on me. I am leaving for two minutes.” After the timer, went off, I’d come back and again, remind him not to spit but that he can say he is angry and clinch his fists. Removing ourselves from the room led to fewer tantrums and meltdowns, and the spitting did begin to improve slowly.

If he spat to get our attention:

At first, we started putting him in his room for two minutes as we did when he was angry, but this was giving him attention. So we shifted to completely ignoring the behavior with much better results. He would stand at the top of the stairs, spit then look at me and wait for my reaction. I would leave the room without reacting or speaking to him. Eventually, spitting for attention stopped altogether!

If he spat for no apparent reason other than seeking sensory input:

This was probably the easiest behavior to curb. We gave him appropriate places to spit. If he spat on the floor, I’d tell him, “You can spit in the potty or the garbage can.” Then I’d ask, “Where can you spit?” Once he repeated the appropriate response of “The potty or the garbage can” I’d have him go to either and spit. This reinforced that I understood his need to spit, and there were appropriate places to do it. Within a few months, when he felt the need to spit, he’d independently go to the potty or garbage can.

If he chewed things that created large amounts of saliva seeking sensory input:

If he chewed on things I didn’t want him chewing on, such as clothing or his iPad case, that created large amounts of saliva, I would offer a distraction such as a drink or a snack. I’d also offer him items he was allowed to chew such as a chewelry (which are products created to fill a child’s oral-motor sensory needs).

I also noticed he would chew the necks of t-shirts, but not polos. So if he chewed a t-shirt, I’d switch him into a polo. Over time, his sensory need for chewing and creating large amounts of saliva drastically decreased. He never chews shirts anymore. As far as chewing on the iPad case, I bought him an inexpensive case that he is allowed to chew on, and this has caused him to chew less on things we don’t want him chewing on.

If he created pools of saliva on the floor to play with for seeking sensory input:

At first, we decided to call attention to this being yucky and having him clean it up, but that didn’t work. We realized this pooling was happening if he wasn’t engaged in a task. So we shifted. Instead, when we’d see him pooling saliva on the floor, we’d engage him in a task such as a game or eating a snack. Again, over time this reduced the behavior. He hasn’t done this in nearly a year.

If he sprayed saliva during play by blowing raspberries or making vehicle or animal sounds:

We ignored it and offered a replacement behavior. For example, if he blew a raspberry to make an engine sound, we’d tell him engines go “vroom.” Teaching him replacement sounds that didn’t spray saliva gave him the fun sounds he wanted to make without spreading respiratory droplets. Although he still will revert to using those sounds from time to time, because of maturity, he can now make many of those sounds without spraying saliva.

The Biggest Takeaway

A year ago, I was as frustrated as you might be today. And although we created a detailed plan to curb our son’s saliva obsession, most of it had to be adjusted during implementation. The key takeaway is that if the behavior modification strategies you are using with your child aren’t working (after giving a few weeks to try), it may be time to shift those strategies. With just a few simple adjustments to our original plan, we have helped our son mostly overcome this behavior, and you can, too!

Parents who have children with special needs are thankful for progress, not perfection. – Author Unknown

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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.

3 thoughts on “Minimizing a Saliva Obsession in Children With Autism

  1. One thing one of our therapists told us – and I was completely amazed to witness – was that our son would salivate *more* if he were in the presence of something that he found sensory appealing. He gets excited and drools.
    If he were given playdoh or a gel like substance that he was excited to play with saliva would start to come out of his mouth even more and drip down his chin. We have to wipe his mouth a lot as he doesn’t realize it is happening. In general, we do see a lot of chewing. On things he is and things he is not supposed to chew on. He will wear a mask but it is a sloppy mess at the end of the day if I do not put a plastic separator between the mask and his mouth. Thankfully, he doesn’t spit. But I will be more mindful of the clothes he chews on and the ones he does not and maybe I can stop that behavior with these tips! Thanks!

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    1. Hi Robyn! That is pretty fascinating! I love when I see a therapist notice something I had no idea about. They are amazing! The mask wearing is so hard for our kids for sure. Barclay doesn’t have to wear one at therapy, but the few minutes into the grocery store and it’s the same thing. Switching the shirts definitely helped for us. Hopefully he will tolerate that. Good luck!

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