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Contrasting Pica Behavior for Individuals with ASD and IDD Against Presentation in the General Population Part I

Contrasting Pica Behavior for Individuals with ASD and IDD Against Presentation in the General Population – Part I

By Janice Goldschmidt, MS, RD, LDN
Director of Nutrition Services
Community Support Services, Inc.

(This is Part I of a 3 part series on the named topic. Part II continues in the January 2019 E-Newsletter and can be found by clicking here. And Part III appears in the February 2019 E-Newsletter and can be read by clicking here.)

This analysis is intended to introduce healthcare professionals to the patterns of pica behavior, diagnosis and treatment for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In so doing, it will contrast this behavior with what is understood regarding pica presentation among the general population. Pica is relatively well defined as an eating disorder, but for those with ASD and IDD this condition is manifested in distinctive patterns. It is important that healthcare professionals working within the realm of disordered eating have a measured understanding of the clinical presentation of this behavior for those with ASD and IDD and appreciate how it differs from pica in the general population.

Pica[1]is formally defined as the consumption of abnormal or unusual nonfood substances. Traditionally, pica was inclusive of various non-nutritive items that no longer fit within the diagnostic understanding of the condition, including consumption of ice and scavenging for food. Pica behavior is manifested in both genders and across the lifespan.1

ASD, a neurobiological condition with no clear biologic marker, is diagnosed through assessment of deficits in communication and social development as well as behavior rigidity.2There is a pronounced diversity of presentation and a tremendous range of abilities and impairment.  Autism falls under the larger umbrella of developmental disability (DD), which is defined by severe impairments in cognitive and/or physical functioning with onset before the age of 22.[2] Autism also has a large overlap, or comorbidity, with intellectual disability (ID). Because ASD and intellectual/developmental disability (IDD) are diagnostically related, research addressing one of these cohorts is often applicable to at least portions of the other.

Pica in the General Population

For nutrition professionals, pica is most commonly associated with pregnant women as a sporadic behaviorduring the gestation period or post-natal during breastfeeding.3,4 Pica during pregnancy is idiopathic though hypothesized as a response to nausea and/or vomiting as well as a physiological response to varied nutritional deficiencies.5 Among pregnant women geophagia — the consumption of soil or clay — is the most prevalent form of presentation.3,4See Table 1 for a listing of the most common categories of pica behavior.

Pica is also demonstrated in typically developing children, possibly as a form of tactile input or as a means of exploration. For this cohort, pica behavior is typically extinguished naturally during the progressive aging process.6Childhood prevalence for pica has been estimated between 10%-32% for children under age 6 though this figure refers to occasional episodes, rather than ongoing behavior. Children under the age of two are believed to have the highest prevalence.7

Pica has also been associated with specific medical conditions, often as a response to treatment protocols.  Patients undergoing dialysis in the treatment of kidney disease have sometimes presented with pagophagia, amylophagia, and geophagia.8 Likewise, sickle cell anemia has been known to promote the ingestion of sponge or foam rubber in children and adolescents.9,10 Pica is also documented among individuals with dementia.11

In a variety of cultures and geographical regions, presentation of pica is acknowledged as a sanctioned behavior though it often coincides with pregnancy-induced pica.12-14  Culturally organized pica has been assessed in diverse contexts including rural life in India,12fertility rituals among women in East Africa,13and famine-induced pica in Europe.14 Pica is also considered medicinal in certain regions, including Peru and Bolivia.15

Overall rates of pica among the general population are not well understood, nor is there sufficient depth to studies of prevalence as they typically lack detail related to persistence, duration, and relationship with socio-cultural traditions.6 Further, as pica is generally perceived as a socially undesirable behavior, self-reports are likely to skew the clinical understanding.16 Still, the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality reported that between 1999 and 2009 there was a 93% increase in cases of pica, the largest rise for any category of eating disorder.17

Pica in the ASD and IDD Population

In comparison with the rather narrow definition of pica in the general population, the characterization of pica for those with ASD and IDD is much more variable and often skews significantly away from the diagnostic criteria.18 That is, individuals presenting with symptoms of pica in the general population display discriminate behavior, or specific consumption of one item or class of substance (e.g., clay or starch). Among those with ASD and IDD, indiscriminate or generalized pica is more often demonstrated.11 While some of these individuals have preferred items for ingestion, others are scavengers, randomly choosing items, or are simply opportunistic (see Table 2 for comparison of pica in the general population and on the autism spectrum).

The published rates of pica in the ASD and IDD literature are highly variable, though the highest rates are identified in institutionalized settings. A record review of 70 hospital patients with ASDfound that 60% of the subjects had displayed pica behavior at some point. This was contrasted with a comparable groups of individuals with Down syndrome where pica was recorded at a prevalence of 4%.19

One review found rates of pica in institutional contexts within a range of 5.7% – 25.8%. However, the researcher noted so many differing methodologies and definitions of pica that overall patterns were difficult to discern.20,21 Studies addressing prevalence rates for individuals living in community-based settings have documented far lower rates of pica ranging from 0.2% to 4.1%.20

Cigarette pica is reported as the most commonly ingested item for individuals with ASD and IDD,22-26despite relatively low rates of documented nicotine use.27 Published research of items ingested by those with ASD and IDD are tremendously diverse (see Table 3) Studies have noted the consumption of items that would be found naturally in many residential contexts (e.g. buttons) while others are contextual or specialized (e.g. holiday ornaments). Some of the published items clearly have the potential to be lethal (e.g., broken glass, dead animals).

Despite widespread documentation of this condition for those with ASD and IDD, in the absence of overt physiological signsmost healthcare professionals would likely not probe staff regarding ingestion patterns.28 One clinical treatment plan for institutionalized individuals with ASD and IDD has been proposed.29 Williams and McAdam advocate for screening; individualized assessment and treatment programs; pica-safe environments; staff training; as well as establishment of special contexts for safety. The authors also write that those individuals who display high frequency pica likely need to have limited access to the community.29


This analysis was originally undertaken as an independent study during my graduate studies at the University of Maryland – College Park.  Special thanks to Thomas Castonguay, PhD for guiding me during that research process and helping me find the appropriate focus for this paper.

[1]Pica comes from the Latin word for a bird renowned for eating almost anything, the magpie.

[2]Aside from ASD and ID, developmental disabilities is inclusive of a number of conditions including Cerebral Palsy as well as a range of neurogenetic, behavioral, metabolic and muscular disorders.

About the author:

Janice Goldschmidt, MS, RD, LDN received her Master’s Degree from the University of Maryland-College Park in Nutrition and Food Science and is currently completing a Master’s in Public Health from the same institution.  She is actively involved as both a researcher and practitioner in the nutritional status of individuals with autism and has published and presented on this topic in numerous professional publications and conferences.  Other research interests include assessment and treatment of disordered eating on the Autism spectrum and development of cooking skills for this same population as a form of nutritional intervention.  In 2018, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities published her first book entitled Teaching Authentic Cooking Skills to Adults With IDD: Active Engagement.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. Feeding and eating disorders : DSM-5 selections.Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing; 2016.
  2. Abrahams BS, Geschwind DH. Advances in autism genetics: on the threshold of a new neurobiology. Nat Rev Genet. 2008;9(5):341-355.
  3. Jackson WC, Martin JP. Amylophagia presenting as gestational diabetes. Arch Fam Med. 2000;9(7):649-652.
  4. Kutalek R, Wewalka G, Gundacker C, et al. Geophagy and potential health implications: geohelminths, microbes and heavy metals. Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg. 2010;104(12):787-795.
  5. Erick M. Nutrition in Pregnancy and Lactation. In: Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S, Raymond JL, Krause MV, eds. Krause’s food & the nutrition care process. 13th ed. St. Louis, Mo.: Elsevier/Saunders; 2012. Chapter [16:34]0-374.
  6. Hartmann AS, Becker AE, Hampton C, Bryant-Waugh R. Pica and Rumination Disorder in DSM-5. Psychiatric Annals. 2012;42(11):426-430.
  7. MedlinePlus. Pica. Online Medical Encyclopedia2002; Accessed January 8, 2015.
  8. Foote E, and Dahl, N. More drug idiosyncrasies in end-stage renal disease. Seminars in Dialysis. 1998;11(3):167-174.
  9. Roberts-Harewood M, Davies SC. Pica in sickle cell disease: “She ate the headboard”. Arch Dis Child. 2001;85(6):510.
  10. Ivascu NS, Sarnaik S, McCrae J, Whitten-Shurney W, Thomas R, Bond S. Characterization of pica prevalence among patients with sickle cell disease. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2001;155(11):1243-1247.
  11. Ali Z. Pica in people with intellectual disability: a literature review of aetiology, epidemiology and complications. J Intellect Dev Disabil. 2001;26(3):205-215.
  12. Nag M. Beliefs and Practices About Food During Pregnancy – Implications for Maternal Nutrition. Economic and Political Weekly.1994;29(37):2427-2438.
  13. Abrahams PW, Parsons JA. Geophagy in the tropics: A literature review. Geographical Journal. 1996;1[62:63]-72.
  14. Matalas A, and Grivetti, L. Non-Food Food During Famine:The Athens Famine Survivor Project. In: MacClancy J, Henry CJK, Macbeth HM, eds. Consuming the inedible : neglected dimensions of food choice. New York: Berghahn Books; 20[07:13]1-139.
  15. Rose EA, Porcerelli JH, Neale AV. Pica: common but commonly missed. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2000;13(5):353-358.
  16. Blinder B. An Update on Pica:Prevalence, Contributing Causes, and Treatment. Psychiatric Times.  2008;25(6):Online.
  17. Zhao Y, Encinosa W. An Update on Hospitalizations for Eating Disorders, 1999 to 2009: Statistical Brief #120. Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) Statistical Briefs. Rockville (MD)2006.
  18. McAdam DB, Sherman JA, Sheldon JB, Napolitano DA. Behavioral interventions to reduce the pica of persons with developmental disabilities. Behav Modif. 2004;28(1):45-72.
  19. Kinnell HG. PICA AS A FEATURE OF AUTISM. Br J Psychiatry. 1985;147(JUL):80-82.
  20. Ashworth M. – Pica among persons with intellectual disability: Prevalence, correlates, and interventions. University of Waterloo (Canada)2007.
  21. Ashworth M, Hirdes JP, Martin L. The social and recreational characteristics of adults with intellectual disability and pica living in institutions. Res Dev Disabil. 2009;30(3):512-520.
  22. LeBlanc L, Feeney, B., Bennett, C. Pica. In: Fisher JE, O’Donohue WT, eds. Practitioner’s guide to evidence based psychotherapy. New York, NY: Springer; 20[06:54]2-549.
  23. McCord BE, Grosser JW, Iwata BA, Powers LJ. An analysis of response-blocking parameters in the prevention of pica. J Appl Behav Anal. 2005;38(3):391-394.
  24. Matson JL, Bamburg JW. A descriptive study of pica behavior in persons with mental retardation. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. 1999;11(4):353-361.
  25. Danford DE, Huber AM. Pica among mentally retarded adults. Am J Ment Defic. 1982;87(2):141-146.
  26. Goh HL, Iwata BA, Kahng SW. Multicomponent assessment and treatment of cigarette pica. J Appl Behav Anal. 1999;32(3):297-316.
  27. McGuire BE, Daly P, Smyth F. Lifestyle and health behaviours of adults with an intellectual disability. J Intellect Disabil Res. 2007;[51:49]7-510.
  28. Delaney CB, Eddy KT, Hartmann AS, Becker AE, Murray HB, Thomas JJ. Pica and rumination behavior among individuals seeking treatment for eating disorders or obesity. Int J Eat Disord. 2014.
  29. Williams DE, McAdam D. Assessment, behavioral treatment, and prevention of pica: Clinical guidelines and recommendations for practitioners. Res Dev Disabil. 2012;33(6):2050-2057.


Table 1.  Most common forms of pica in general population

Name Characterized by consumption of…
Amylophagia starch
Coprophagy feces
Pagophagy ice
Geophagy soil, clay, or chalk
Hyalophagia glass
Lithophagia pebbles or rocks
Mucophagy Mucus
Trichophagia hair or wool
Urophagia Urine
Mxlophagia wood or paper
Plumbophagia Lead


Table 2.  Comparison of Pica in the General Population versus for those with ASD or IDD

Pica in the General Population Pica on the Autism Spectrum
Pregnant and Lactating Women


Related to specific medical conditions

Culturally sanctioned behavior

Seen across the autism spectrum
Specific pica: Prescribed nature of objects consumed, that is typically one class of pica (e.g., ice, clay) Generalized pica:  Widely varying nature of objects consumed, many times scavenging or opportunistic
Highest rates among children as a developmentally appropriate activity Highest rates among individuals who are institutionalized


Table 3.  Items reported as Consumed

by Individuals with ASD or IDD

Item Consumed and Source
aftershave lotion 71
alkaline batteries 64,89
broken light bulbs 75
buttons 71,90
carpet 48,70
chalk 72,
cleaning products 23
cloth 91,92
clothes 48,77,90
coffee grounds 93
crayons 77
dead animals 77
dirt 23,34,90
feces 75,76,89,90
foam rubber 74,
foam padding 48
glass 75
grass 75,
hair 48,77,90
holiday decorations 94
insects 75
jewelry 64
keys 77,89
metal 92,95
mothballs 34
paint chips 23,76
paper 24,48,74,76,90
paper clips 78
pencils 76,
plastic tubing 64,77
rocks 75,77,89,96
rubber bands 64
sealed snack bags 64,
sewing needles 71
soap 89,93
spoiled food 93
string 91,93
styrofoam 23
tar 96
tea bags 71,
toilet bowl fresheners 34
toiletries 71
toilet water 93
trash 71
twigs 77,89
vinyl 85 or rubber gloves 89
vomit 93
wood chips 96



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