Autism and Pica

Autism is misunderstood, as is pica. It takes a long time for some of it to be diagnosed, in my case forty-eight years for autism. I’m still not diagnosed with pica, although I eat non-food items often and a diagnosis would not help me (apart from my teeth).

We autistics often have co-occurring conditions, in my case there are the major conditions of anxiety and depression. I also have what you may think is a very, very odd condition called pica.

I don’t know if pica is directly related to my autism, but as my brain is wired differently (as all autistics’ brains are), I think it is an odd side effect of my personal variation of autism.

Pica is eating things that are not food. These can include absolutely anything that isn’t food, although supermarket foods often have non-food materials added. For example, if the label on your breakfast cereal reads, “contains iron,” it most likely has very fine iron fillings added to it during processing, rather than the iron coming from an iron-rich food.

In my case, the pica items I consume consist mainly of soil, rocks, and minerals. This is a specific type of pica called geophagia.

Photo description: Five rocks (ironstone, steam coal, and anthracite) of different colors and sizes on a white plate, with a fork and knife to the sides. These materials are just a few of the things the author eats.

Safety warning: eating things that are not food can be very dangerous. It is not recommended to eat non-food items, but I did do research to learn about the safety of what I eat.

I’m in the UK, and certain soils found here will put you in hospital. Certain plants and fungi will kill you. I have been responsible about what I have eaten. Where I live, certain soils contain large proportions of heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Plants are no different.

I went to a pub in the (now defunct) South Wales coalfields and found a lump of coal and some ironstone on my walk there. The pub is a bit of a tourist attraction (but not busy during afternoons in the week, so ideal for an autistic like me). There were tourists in the pub, and they saw me eating the coal and licking the ironstone and asked me if the pub sold food.

I said no, and then they asked me where I got my food. I said, ‘It’s not food, just minerals from the area.’ They were surprised but interested in the minerals, so I gave half the coal and all of the ironstone to them. As foreign tourists visiting the coal and ironwork area, they were delighted with their gifts.

I went home with half the coal and a sneaky beaker of glacial deposits I always have in my bag.

I love the taste of soil, clay– especially glacial clay– and also chalk, peat, and fossils.

I wrote this to shed light on a condition many autistics have to promote understanding of what it is like to have pica. If someone eats non-food items, then please do not judge them, but also ensure that they are safe.

Speak to a doctor if you think you have pica as it could be a sign of iron deficiency or an underlying medical issue. Also, if you know an autistic who has pica, please take time to try to understand their (and my) difficult life as an autistic with pica.

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11 Responses

  1. Interesting article. My daughter has pica – she has always loved to eat soil, sawdust and particularly sand. She does it a lot less than as a pre-schooler, but she still finds sand irresistible. (We’re investigating ADD atm). I used to eat a lot of paper and chew plastic as a child (and I am also autistic). These days I just have disordered eating (particularly under pressure). Chewing is almost a stim at times, and particular textures.
    A brilliant book referencing pica is White is for Witching (Oyeyemi). It’s fiction though. Beautiful writing, and she captures the textural transgressive joys of plastic chewing.

  2. Kudos for bringing this to the forefront. I once taught a child with pica. It was a struggle to get him to eat regular food but he would constantly tear off bits of wallpaper and eat it.

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    I would love to see more articles on pica if anyone has the time and interest to write them. I’m working on a wikiHow article to help non-autistic people understand pica, and to help parents/caregivers manage pica in people with intellectual disabilities (who may not understand safety and thus are at risk of ingesting poisonous or otherwise dangerous items).

    1. I’m glad you like my article.
      As an autistic with pica ( aged 49 3/4) I am happy to help in any way I can to help others understand.

      1. I’m writing the article partly in response to the tragic death of James Frankish, an autistic young man with an intellectual disability who died after eating too many dangerous items. My goal is to empower caregivers to help people with pica (especially those with intellectual disabilities who may not recognize danger) so that everything eaten is safe.

        An article for people with pica themselves would be cool too, but I don’t know nearly enough about the subject to presume to know how to give advice to the people who have it. (Especially since most of the sources are for parents…)

        1. I’m in the UK and we have safety data sheets for just about everything here, these contain information about dangers. It’s part of the coshh regulations ( control of substances hazardous to health )

  4. Leonardo:

    why do these rocks look so delicious?

    On the first plate they are so smooth; and on the second plate different rocks are jagged.

    I’m sure there’s a feel element as well.

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