So I thought gum was the ultimate solution for Beth at first. It satisfied her need to self-regulate by mouthing, tasting, and chewing. We went with sugar-free so her teeth wouldn’t rot out of her head. Sometimes she went through a lot of gum at the table while doing school work or in a stressful social situation. I would just take the old gum and give her a new piece and didn’t think much of it because the gum was working miracles (she was able to sit for long periods of time and not have outbursts). I thought it was doing her no harm, and made sure to check what was in the gum and check how much sugar alcohol (a sugar substitute) it contained. The relatively little amount of sugar alcohol she would swallow didn’t seem to be a problem according to articles I read. She would have to chew like 3-4 packs of the gum to even be concerned. Or so I thought.
Simultaneous to using gum over the past 2 years or so, I thought I had just about solved an issue with kiddo’s gut. I surmised she was lactose intolerant and being strict about the lactose in her diet helped. She still had some loose stools and a lot of sitting on the potty at night, but it was better than frank diarrhea when she had lactose in her diet. Also, simultaneous to using gum, Beth had an increase in sound sensitivity and she covered her ears more and had a spike up in her fear of noises. Little did I know all of this was related to the damn sugar alcohol.
Two clues happened that led me down the right path: 1. Beth started holding her ears when I knew she was in pain (like bumping her leg … so general pain equaled holding ears and sound sensitivity…aha!) and 2. Beth started asking for a lot of gum and her intestinal distress (gas, diarrhea at night) went way up. Finally I put it all together and decided the gum and sugar alcohol could have a profound affect on her behavior and physical well-being. Back to Google for more research and it turns out ONLY A LITTLE SUGAR ALCOHOL CAN CAUSE STOMACH UPSET IN CHILDREN (see this article for example, http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/sugar-alcohols.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/). In addition, if you just happen to have a sensitive stomach to begin with, ANY AMOUNT OF SUGAR ALCOHOL CAN UPSET SOME PEOPLE’S STOMACHS (http://blogs.webmd.com/healthy-recipe-doctor/2010/03/the-dirty-little-secret-of-sugar-free-products.html).
Only now, after I took her off the gum completely, do I understand the vicious cycle we were in: 1. Beth gets nervous and wants to mouth, 2. I give her a piece of gum, 3. The flavor wears out and she asks for more, 4. At a certain level of sugar alcohol Beth gets gas and other discomfort, 5. Because mouthing is her go-to comfort she asks for more gum to soothe her stomach distress, 6. Then she asks for so many pieces of gum she ends up ingesting a fairly high level of sugar alcohol and ends up with loose stools by the end of the day.
It was not easy to take her off the gum, but it has been life changing. Sound sensitivity immediately went away and she can eat milk products again (I guess the sugar alcohol was irritating her stomach and making the milk hard to tolerate). She has had less stomach distress and less time sitting on the potty. After we went through 2 months of telling her “no gum” she finally accepted it and is overall calmer and can go through entire classes and activities without any oral aids.
So spread the word on intestinal issues, gum, and sugar alcohols. Our kids often can’t tell us what is going on with them internally, so this is definitely a serious issue in the autism and special needs communities.
The other day my friend told me that her son’s teachers were going to try gum with him to keep him quiet and regulated in class. My advice: DON’T DO IT.