Gustatory – What we taste
The gustatory system, or our sense of taste, allows us to recognise the five basic taste sensations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. This sense is meant to keep us safe from ingesting things that are toxic, spoiled, or inedible. It plays a very important role in eating and drinking but is not the only sense that allows us to perceive flavour. It would be very difficult to identify the foods we eat without additionally relying on texture, temperature, and sense of smell. When the gustatory system and its closely related senses in the mouth are over or under responding to oral input, you may see a range of disruptive behaviours in children with sensory processing concerns. The need for adequate oral input may cause a child to constantly put inedible objects in his mouth. These may be the children who always seem to ruin their shirt sleeves or collars no matter how many times you remind them not to chew their clothing. Or perhaps the more intense input of oral stimuli are causing your child to refuse all but a select few foods. As frustrating as it can be, the threat of certain tastes, smells, and textures feel very real to a child who is over responding to oral input.
Input to the gustatory system can be either calming or alerting to your nervous system. For example, foods which are sour, salty, or cold can be alerting, while those which are sweet or warm can be calming.
Strategies to provide adequate oral input:
- Provide a chewy tool; there are now a variety of ways to discretely utilize them. Whether using a chew tube or a chewy pencil topper, the child will have frequent access to a more appropriate chew toy than their shirt collar.
- Incorporate snacks throughout the day that are crunchy, chewy, or otherwise resistive. Think rice crackers, pretzels, carrots, or drinking thick liquids such as smoothies or yogurt through a straw.
- Regularly encourage use of a water bottle with a straw throughout the day.
- Use tools or play games that require each child to forcefully blow air out of their mouths. Try whistles or kazoos, blowing bubbles, blowing up balloons, using a straw to blow a cotton ball across the table or simply using a straw to blow bubbles into a drink.
Ideas for incorporating Gustatory ideas into your curriculum:
Give strong-tasting foods before introducing new ones. Strong tastes can stimulate the mouth of an under-sensitive child and make them more willing to try new foods. Before presenting new foods, let the child have one peppermint, sour gummy bear, or other strong flavoured food.
Play a taste game. Get an assortment of fruit and cut into bite sized pieces. Eat one at a time, and have the child guess which flavour it is. This learning experience can also be extended to talking about textures, smells and colour of the different fruits.
Involve children in food preparation. Children are more likely to taste something if they help make it. Let each child help you grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs, plan meals and shop. Give them a sense of control: for example, when doing a cooking experience, let them choose between chicken or fish, string beans or sugar snaps, potato or rice. Then encourage children to help in food preparation such as peeling vegetables and putting them in water, and so on. Children will also love to help you arrange food on each plate so it looks pleasing to eat.
Play with your food. A so-called picky eater may be more willing to eat “rocks and trees” than meatballs and broccoli. Fun arrangements such as some vegetable sticks and grape tomatoes placed in a smiley face pattern on a plate encourage kids to taste something new. Fruit kebabs are the perfect example of this!
If you do have any concerns about a particular child, consulting with an Occupational Therapist can be helpful in understanding the child’s specific needs. Because children with significant over or under responsive behaviours to oral input may develop habits that are potentially harmful to their health (for example, mouthing inedible objects or a severely limited diet), it is important to seek guidance when needed. Incorporating appropriate oral input within a sensory diet or participating in feeding therapy to expand food repertoire can greatly improve the child’s response to or need for oral input.
Enjoy your food tasting adventures...